Instead of fleeing from the site of the bombings or staring numbly at the wreckage, they rushed to help the wounded, offering reassurance, applying tourniquets and carrying the wounded to the arriving ambulances. These were not just first responders, but the runners themselves and family members and other spectators who had gathered for a celebration that was never to be.
This is not what the experts counsel. It is an al-Qaida trademark to plant a second, delayed bomb in hopes of killing the rescue workers. But that quick, humane reaction says something wholly admirable about the people gathered on Boylston Street and, by extension, the people of Boston, too.
We like to think other Americans would have reacted the same way.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the toll stood at three dead, including an 8-year-old boy who had come to watch his father compete. His sister and mother were among at least 170 wounded.
With the FBI in the lead, law enforcement began the painstaking work of gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and hoping, in the words of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, to turn up “witnesses who don’t know they are witnesses.”
And detectives began the work familiar to any viewer of a modern crime show, gathering up the great number of photos from videos, cellphone cameras and store and traffic surveillance cameras. Davis pledged that police would study “every frame of every video.” In this age, it is very likely that somewhere there exist images of the perpetrator or perpetrators. And police will examine the records of all nearby cellphone towers.
Barring hard evidence, we are left with speculation. If foreign terrorists had committed the bombings, they almost certainly would have bragged about their actions by now.
The circumstances suggested some familiarity with Boston. Patriots Day is a public holiday in Massachusetts, but it is not widely celebrated, or even known, elsewhere. The bombs were placed on the side of the street with the largest number of spectators and were timed to go off, not to catch the winners and the faster runners but to detonate when the great mass of middling runners reached the finish line.
With the exception of the 2009 mass shooting of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, by a fanatic Muslim major, this is the worst terrorist attack on a U.S. city since 9/11.
But there have been at least 19 close calls, including the Underwear Bomber aboard an aircraft in 2009 and the thwarted Times Square bombing in 2010, both planned by Islamic fanatics. Indeed, it would not come as a surprise to find out that Tuesday’s bombing was carried out not at the behest of al-Qaida, but by one or two homegrown terrorists who, like Times Square bomber wannabe Faisal Shahzad, became radicalized after watching al-Qaida videos on the Internet. However, it is important to remember that many of those 19 close calls were thwarted thanks to details quietly shared with the police and FBI by informants from that community.
The lesson is that vigilance and preparation can greatly mitigate, though never completely block, a determined terrorist. The consolation — slender though it is — is that this terrorist, or terrorists, almost inevitably will be caught.