William Faulkner could have been thinking of Boston when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
Even before two homemade bombs violated the effervescent finish of the 2013 Boston Marathon — killing three and wounding or maiming 264 others — the race had long ago established itself as part of the local genome.
Twelve days ago, the jury sitting in the federal trial of 21-year-old Dzhokar Tsarnaev found him guilty of 30 felony counts arising from planning and executing the attack, including first-degree murder, conspiracy, and terrorism. (Tsarnaev’s older brother and fellow terrorist, Tamerlan, died amidst a hale of gunfire with police hours before Dzhokar was apprehended.)
Tuesday, the penalty phase of the trial begins. It will determine whether Tsarnaev spends the rest of his life in prison, most likely in the notorious Supermax facility near Florence, Colorado; or, becomes the fourth person to be executed by lethal injection by the U.S. government since 2001.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984. And polls show local opinion running consistently against execution. Because the jury was chosen to ensure that members would be at least open to the possibility of a death sentence, the issue of anti-death sentiment was thought to have been contained by prosecutors.
But no longer.
In the days before the 119th Marathon running, Bill and Denise Richard, the parents of 8-year-old Martin, the youngest attack murder victim, in a front-page appeal in the Boston Globe, called for death for Tsarnaev to be shelved.
Hours before the grueling 26.2 mile run began, two newlywed survivors who lost limbs joined the Richard’s request for a life in jail.
These pleas appear to complicate an already complicated situation.
And they underscore how the narrative of terror is being woven into the already complicated narrative that is the Boston Marathon.
The Marathon has led a dual life for many years.
On one level, it is thought by many to be the world’s most prestigious foot race, where the individual achievement of Olympic-level athletes receives global applause.
This years winners: Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia won the men’s race with an unofficial time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 17 seconds. Caroline Rotich of Kenya topped the women's field in an unofficial 2:24:55. This was Rotich’s first win. She finished with great drama, nudging Ethiopian Mare Dibaba by just a few yards. Desisa trumped the 2013 race, but after the attacks donated his medal to the city in remembrance of the victims.
On another equally valid level, it is perhaps the ultimate expression of hometown Boston identity, combining local participation in the race with a Red Sox day-game that begins at 11:05 a.m. that — since 1903 — lets out in time to allow Fenway fans to merge with the Marathon crowds and watch the runners pass through Kenmore Square on the last leg of the course.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of Patriots’ Day — always the third Monday in April — commemorating Paul Revere’s Ride, the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the start of the American Revolution.
The bombing, the Tsarnaev trial, and now the sentencing and possible execution of Dzhokhar add a third, more immediate and bloody, level to Patriots Day, an event which — intellectually and in fact — joins the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
Like the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl Parade, and the Westminster Dog Show, the Marathon has never not occurred since it launched. Rain or shine — and the drizzle turned to rain this year, cutting the field to 27,000 officials entrants — the race was run even during World Wars I and II.
The neighborhood-by-neighborhood response to the events of two years ago was more than a local rejection of terror. To expect anything else would have been so off base as to be ridiculous. Rather it was a manifestation of local strength and resilience.
America is a nation where yesterday was a long time ago. That is perhaps why Boston is unique, enriched by its past — even when it’s uncomfortable.
This is something Faulkner, a cantankerous Southerner, would surely grant to his equally cantankerous Yankee cousins.