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Terror invades the Boston Marathon and our freedom along with it

Updated: May 17, 2013 6:46AM



Sometimes social change creeps up on us. Sometimes it comes with a boom.

This was a boom.

The terrorist bombs that exploded near the finish line of Monday’s Boston Marathon did more than kill and injure people. They told us something we don’t want to know, certainly something we don’t want to think about: Danger lurks in places that are symbolic; danger lurks in places that are crowded.

My first thought upon ­learning of the Boston bombings was a strange one. Why did it take so long?

Terrorists have forever been hung up on airplanes and their useful destruction. We got the ­message loud and clear on 9/11, and since then, we’ve had an attempted shoe bomber, an attempted underwear bomber and certainly dozens, maybe hundreds, of thwarted terrorist attacks using other techniques we’ll never know about. En route, we as Americans have been treated not as free citizens but criminal suspects every time we buy a ticket and board an airplane.

Such is the tradeoff with ­terrorism: Search the many to find the few.

Sporting events abruptly have that airplane cachet, if you will. The biggest athletic events in this country have been under iron-fisted guard for decades — the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Olympics, the World Cup. But those, generally, are contests that occur in enclosed arenas, places that can essentially be surrounded by security and locked down the way a prison can be.

Not so with a marathon. Thousands of runners, 26 miles of crowds, a nightmare for security — a marathon is basically open to all. Then, too, why would anyone want to rain on an event such as the Boston Marathon, an annual celebration that is as much festival as it is sport?

Well, we know the reason now.

Because it’s a vast, easy, notable target. And it’s where the crowds are. Crowds are what humans rejoice in, the coming together as one to cheer and focus on a single thing that stimulates all. And if crowds — per se — become dangerous, then what a mess we have.

Yet there are bad guys in the world. And they see the ­commingling of humanity that arises with sport as just another whopping opportunity to create mayhem and suffering.

Think about it — where have the worst, most recent attacks on civility occurred: in a parking lot in front of a supermarket (the Gabrielle Giffords shooting), at a packed movie theater (the suburban Denver “The Dark Knight Rises” atrocity), at a school (the Newtown slaughter). Those were not technically terrorist attacks, but anything that destroys lives and trust as those killings did must be considered, in its effect, a ­terroristic act.

I mentioned that the Olympics are closely guarded. They are. Insanely so. To the point that chairs and benches are often removed from public places and trash cans are made of cardboard, not metal. But the marathon, again, presents problems.

I was on the street at the Athens Olympics marathon in 2004, about four miles from the finish line, in the midst of a teeming and happy crowd that went as far as one could see in either direction, and I watched the front-runners speed by.

One of them, a slender man whom I later would learn was Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, had a wild, frightened look in his eyes. Back around the corner, only a minute earlier, he had been jumped by a crazy Irish religious protester who bolted from the crowd and tackled de Lima to the pavement. No reason. The tackler was just a dangerous fool.

De Lima, who was then in first place, would finish third. Along with the bronze medal, he was awarded the rarely given Pierre de Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship.

What I thought on that street corner was: How easy it would be to kill people here with a bomb.

I was at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when a bomb did go off in Centennial Olympic Park in ­downtown Atlanta. And almost every day during last summer’s London Games, fellow columnist Rick Morrissey and I took the subway out of the Russell Square station, where, seven years earlier, a teenage terrorist blew up 26 people and himself with a ­backpack full of explosives.

There were security cameras and guards everywhere in 2012 London. Big Brother lived, making things safe. The key moment for me was when a double-decker bus I was taking to a venue stopped at a light at a busy intersection. I looked lazily out the window, and my gaze came to rest on a video camera at the top of a pole. After a few seconds, I saw the camera slowly move until it seemed to focus on me.

How do we stay free and love our iconic sports without giving in to the chains of a police state? How can crowds stay fun? Big sports crowds? Tough questions.

With a boom, we have to ask them.



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