This week, I've been working on the piece below about my experiences following the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. It's a longer post than usual, and parts of it may be difficult to read; some of the names have been changed.
I am a researcher. And by that, I mean that when something tragic happens, I retreat into my couch with a computer and I scour the internet for everything I can find. I look up the who, the what, when and where; I read about the how, and I consider the various speculations as to the why, doing my best to separate the logical from the inane. Even when the details are horrifying, I’m compelled to see and hear everything, not because I am a sensationalist, but because the facts, whatever they may be, help me to process the unfathomable.
During the past two weeks (and for many more to come), eighteen Boston jurors are being asked to consider the facts, process the unfathomable, and ultimately decide whether or not to punish a man with death, or with life. While following the trial from jury selection onward, I have often asked myself what I would do as a juror for the case, whether or not I could be an impartial juror, whether or not I would vote to sentence a man to death, even if that man deliberately ended an innocent person’s life. I’m not sure of the answer to any of those questions, and so I research.
I have read or heard reports detailing the testimonies of the Boston Marathon Bombing victims, including that of a father who had to recognize that his son would not survive, and left him to tend to the daughter he had a chance to save. I have seen the photographs from the finish line that are re-circulating as evidence, and somehow the blood is more vivid, the injuries far more graphic, and I wonder why I hadn’t seen them as clearly before. When I look at the photographs now, I feel a tremendous sense of sadness, compassion, and awe for the survivors. But the photograph that caught me completely by surprise, the one that sent a wave of nausea through my stomach, was a photograph of Tsarnaev climbing out of his hiding place, a boat named Slipaway II, in Watertown, blood on the side of his face, his hands raised to his shoulders, and two red dots--laser sights from law enforcement rifles--on his forehead.
When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, I didn’t know because I wasn’t there. In fact, I was one thousand miles away, visiting my parents and family in Atlanta. That afternoon, I was alone in my parents’ house, reading a book when the telephone rang. When I saw my aunt’s telephone number on the Caller ID, I answered it with a cheerful “Hello,” expecting a chance to catch up.
“Is Amar ok?” Her question confused me. “Do you know what’s going on in Boston? Are you watching the news?”
“No,” I said, reaching through the cushions to find the remote.
“There were explosions at the marathon. He didn’t go, did he? Have you talked to him today?”
No. No, he wasn’t planning on going. I don’t think he went. He wouldn’t have gone into the city; he had to work. Unless someone asked him to go along. Laura. Laura usually hosts a Marathon Monday party at her apartment--she asked if we wanted to come last week. Laura--Laura would have been there. And Steven and Allie, they were planning on meeting friends at the finish line.
The television screen warmed up and the image of the finish line, tattered banners and smoke and debris, flashed on the screen. “I think we have friends there.”
“Call Amar, Hayley. Find out where your friends are,” she said, and she hung up.
Amar was at work, right where he should have been. Laura was also at home, and Steven and Allie had just boarded the T to travel into the city when they were turned around and sent home because of the explosions. I was safe; everyone I knew was safe. I slipped into the role of bystander and source of moral support for the community, and I did what I think many people do when they find themselves to be distant witnesses to a tragedy: I followed the details through the news, kept the victims in my thoughts and prayers, and went about my day. It pains me to write that sentence, to admit so casually that I “went about my day” when so many people were living a nightmare that would last for weeks, or months, or more. I certainly didn’t forget about them.
Four days later, on Friday, April 19th at around five in the morning, I heard my sister open the bedroom door.
“They found the guys. They’re about to arrest them. I thought you’d want to know.”
I slowly opened my eyes and worked my way through a few heavy blinks. “Yeah,” I said, “I’ll be there in a minutes.”
“Take your time. They have to catch them first. Right now the police are chasing them through Watertown--they’re shooting and tossing more bombs out of the car or something.”
I can’t find the words to describe what I felt in that moment. I was breathless, bordering on a surreal experience when your limbs are moving but you aren’t sure that you actually told them to. She had said, “Watertown,” not knowing that, while technically our mailing address at the time was Newton, MA, Watertown was actually the closest city to our house; we were a five-minute walk from the town square, a walk I made often to get to the library or to visit the river dam. The firefight, as it was called, began on Laurel Street, two miles east of our house. According to the news, the Tsarnaev brothers were fleeing west.
I lept from my bed and darted across the hall into her bedroom where there was a television, shouting, “We live there!” I sat on her bed and stared as the news cameras panned the street, playing the flashes of light and popping sounds of gunfire and explosives on repeat. Soon after, they interviewed a man who had watched from his apartment until a stray bullet came through the window. The camera zoomed in on the bullet hole in the wall, and my thoughts flashed to Amar and our apartment. I desperately wanted to be there, as if that would be enough to keep a stray bullet from finding its way into our living room wall, to keep tragedy away from my husband and my home.
Within an hour, the news reported that one of the Tsarnaev brothers had been killed and the search for the other was ongoing while the entire city was under an order to “shelter in place.” Throughout the day, the news stations cycled through the different “developments” in the story, moving up and down Arsenal Street depending on how the police lines had adjusted. Vans and trucks filled up the parking lot at Arsenal Mall, transforming the place where we often wandered around Marshalls before eating dinner at Chipotle into a police command center. SWAT teams stormed the roof of a restaurant we had eaten at the Saturday before as they surrounded an apartment there. I knew every street corner, every landmark, knew when to shift to the left lane because the right lane is about to become a row of parallel parking spots.
It is a difficult experience to become disillusioned about the safety and security of your own home, to realize that the evil you researched and processed and considered to be a distant threat has unexpectedly reached your doorstep. I found it so disorienting that, when I saw a car drive past my parents’ house in Atlanta, I nearly shouted, “What are you doing outside? Don’t you know what is happening?”
I felt some comfort in the fact that thousands of law enforcement officers were scouring Watertown in search of Tsarnaev, hoping that they would eventually find him or determine that he had escaped into another city--moving on to someone else’s doorstep. I was furious when, at six-thirty that evening, the police lifted the travel ban and more or less suspended their search until more information was available. I felt that they had surrendered us to the mercy of wolves, waiting for the next carjacking, for next body to appear so that they would have a new lead in the search.
My fears were short-lived, as two hours later, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was in police custody. He was found by a resident, lying injured inside of a boat, waiting for death or capture and leaving his final message scribbled in pencil across the wall. The photograph that surprised me, the one that left me with a familiar tingling in my arms and legs, was of Tsarnaev climbing out of that boat. The photo should bring me a sense of relief: it represents the end of the danger, the end of the fear, and the beginning of justice, but instead it leaves me feeling ill. The image of Tsarnaev dressed so casually in jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt with blood on his hands and face and a laser pointed at his head, is too real. It reminds me that a real person, one who I wouldn’t have given a second look if he sat next to me at a bus stop, had done something truly horrible, had consciously decided to end another human’s life, and had disappeared into my backyard. It is difficult to be reminded of that fear.
I feel that there should be a moral to this story, a grand lesson that I learned looking back two years later, but I don’t have one. The best I can manage is a word of gratitude and admiration for the survivors and witnesses who have been testifying during the trial. In no way to I equate my experience, my fear, to their terror, because they can’t compare. My life was never in immediate danger. One-and-a-half miles and thousands of police officers stood between Tsarnaev and my husband, and yet I found it difficult to look at a photograph that reminds me of my fear. What must it be like to sit on the witness stand and look at the face of the man whose actions that day forever changed your life, perhaps took something from you that you can never get back? I am grateful for those whose courage brings them to the courtroom to testify and help to bring justice for the hundreds of victims and their families.