Wednesday, April 17, 2013

1 The Usual Suspects: A Tale of Two Marathons; of Two Terrorisms

** This is a post written by my very good friend, Suyu.  Suyu is one of my closest friends at Tufts and, as of Monday, has run the Boston Marathon twice.  He shared his thoughts on Facebook and gave me permission to post this Facebook note that he wrote for us here at Snakes on McCain.  Props to you, Suyu. **

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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

My name is Suyu Zhang, and I am a senior at Tufts University.  I was meters from the first blast of the bomb that went off on April 15th 2013 and one of the last runners to have crossed the finish line. This is my account of the 117th Boston Marathon.

I have participated in two Boston Marathons; as a freshman and a foreigner in 2010, and then as a senior and an American in 2013. Both times, I woke up on the morning of the marathon not knowing that I would be running in the race. Both times I have walked away from the Boston Marathon with a heavy heart.

The spring of my freshman year, I was a foreign student studying in the United States. The morning of the Boston Marathon, I was woken up early by my pledge educator to go and observe the race after an especially heavy night of celebration at the fraternity. My pledge brothers brought backpacks filled with homework and textbooks to balance the day between catching up on work and cheering on our friends. On a whim, we decided to join the race. Foolishly, I decided to help carry a friend’s backpack full of textbooks after the 10-mile mark. Foolishly but proudly, I carried that weight and the weight of my hangover through the rolling hills of suburban and urban Boston. While the experience was painful, it was also unforgettable. The energy, sportsmanship, and the camaraderie of the race and especially that of the Greater Boston communities was unbelievable. There was not a single moment during the race that I felt alone, weak, or unsafe. While I had been in the Greater Boston area for close to a year at that point, I’d never known or appreciated its character, its community. For the first time I saw and felt a glimpse of this city’s beauty. I finished the marathon in 5 hours, heavy legged, and exhausted. Aside from the physical pain, however, I felt proud, my heart heavy but filled with joy and confidence. I was beginning to love Boston.

In 2013, I was a mere 20 meters from the first blast of the bomb that went off on April 15th. I woke up early in the morning as an American citizen (having attained citizenship in 2011).  I felt an undeniable urge to run, to see the rolling hills of Hopkinton and to hear the cheering crowds in Wellesley, and to conquer Heartbreak Hill in Newton. I wanted to see this city and community, which I have grown to appreciate and love, one last time before the uncertainty of graduation. I hitched a ride with a close friend who was also planning to run that day. On a whim, once again, I had decided to run the Boston Marathon.

Around 2:50 p.m., just after I had crossed the finish line and exchanged words of excitement with a friend over the phone, I heard a deafening blast, deep into the ground. Confused and surprised, I turned around. It had sounded like a cannon blast and although my memory from 4 years ago was hazy, I was certain that this was not part of the planned celebration. Then I saw smoke, slowly but menacingly rising from the Fairmount Copley Plaza Hotel; the flags of different countries blowing in the complete opposite direction of the wind.  Stunned and silent my fellow runners and I stood still. A race official grabbed me by the shirt and yelled,  “Go!” Before I had time to react, a second but distant boom echoed across the finish line. Boston, media would later confirm, was struck by terrorism and the rest is history.

I left the race that day with a heavy heart, just as I had four years ago. This time not filled with pride or joy, but with fear. Fear for the lives and safety of my friends. Fear for the pain and suffering of beloved college town, my community. But also, fear that I would never run through Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline or Boston again. Fear that I would be lost. Fear that Boston will grow to reject me.

I do not mean to take away from the significance of Boston’s pain or its trauma, nor the sadness of the families that have lost loved ones. The city is traumatized, its people hurt but Bostonians are strong, resilient and united. I believe that in time Boston, my city, will recover, get on its feet, and find its stride. Runners will come back, perhaps in even greater numbers to show solidarity and resilience for those that lost their lives in 2013.

 An act of terror like this, however, has so many more implications, both visible and invisible. Immediately after the detonation a Saudi man was tackled by bystanders, falsely accused, apprehended and searched by the police. While you cannot criticize the police’s reaction in handling a suspected culprit, you can and should criticize why this particular innocent man, injured by the same blast as others around him, was targeted.

People of color are likely to be targeted after alleged terror attacks. We are treated like refugees, without official protection or guarantee of our safety, or our rights. These individual rights are too easily and too often waived to protect “America.” But this begs the question - whose America? This frightens me; it is the root of my nightmares. Why? Because I do not feel like I am part of this America that the government is protecting. This frightens me because even after having finished 26.2 miles, I felt the urge to run.

When the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, sent 16 bombs between 1978 and1995 targeting innocent Americans, we were under threat from a domestic terrorist who was simply “crazy, deranged, twisted.” But when Seung Hui Cho massacred 32 at Virginia Tech it was tied to an entire race. When Al-Qaeda attacked the Twin Towers, immediately a group of Americans lost their liberty and rights. Soon, being of a certain color, wearing certain clothing, speaking a certain language, or even being a socially awkward person of color at a university meant inescapable scrutiny. In the eyes of the government and the public, we were no longer Americans. We were simply suspects.

What if this terrorist is another person of color? How would the public react after being brainwashed by films like “Olympus Has Fallen”? The aftermath of Virginia Tech was tough for me as an Asian American, but Boston is a place I call home. What if by default I become an “enemy,” a “dangerous threat” due to the action of a single twisted individual? What if I become hated and feared by the same children that gleefully shared high-fives, smiles and orange slices along the marathon course? Will I have to leave? What will happen to my younger brother in the 6th grade? This is the unseen terrorism that struck on April 15th 2013 – on September 11, 2001. This is the unseen terrorism that grips the lives of people of color in the United States daily; especially those of Arab Americans.

While all Americans suffer from the immediate and visible impact of acts of terror, there is another wave of terrorism that stirs in its wake. Hatred and racism makes these moments of fear especially unbearable for people of color. While many of us are emotionally and physically equally affected by these traumas, we are often stripped of our rights to speak, our rights to mourn, our rights to cope. It is during periods of terror that our beloved communities, friends, neighbors, teachers, and city turn us away. Our only crime: being born a certain way. In moments like this, I try to remember that humanity is common across all races, and that love and compassion must be universal. These deranged individual uses the tools of evil to distort our minds and turn us against each other. But they do not represent their race, ethnicity, or religion. If Unabomber doesn’t represent all Harvard graduates, all Michigan Alums, all whites, then Al-Qaeda should not represent all Arabs, all Muslims. It is moments like this that we must remind ourselves: united we will stand but divided we fall. It is moments like this that we must remember that a marathon is not over until all its participants cross the finish line.

I grieve for Boston. I fume for Boston. But most importantly I hope and pray for Boston. I hope that the culprit will be brought to justice; I hope that the Boston community heals and unites against such an act of terror. But I also pray that Boston does not betray its character, dignity and greatness when the culprit is found. I pray Boston be better than and above the terror of racism and hatred that threatens to engulf this country. I pray that Boston remains true to its citizens and inhabitants. I pray that Boston remains….Boston. 

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