What Boston Strong Means and Where it Goes From Here

I’ve been thinking a lot about the catch phrase “Boston Strong” as we approach the second week following the Boston Marathon Bombings. Being a surrogate Bostonian, I understood its nuance, but besides seeing it on buses and next to a hashtag on Twitter, I didn’t quite know how to interpret it. Was it the strength of the first responders and people like Carlos Arredondo, the cowboy whose first instincts and actions were to save? Was it those in the community who have rallied to support those in the aftermath via charity, counseling, or commemoration? After a week of contemplation, Boston Strong remains an allegory for the magnitude and amplitude of which this incident impacted us, Bostonians and beyond.

My initial reaction to the catchphrase was positive. In the early hours after the bombs detonated, I received a call from a college buddy of mine who works for a news network and was reporting on a missing Boston University student. I tweeted a call for any information, and within a couple of hours, a classmate of mine messaged me a Google People Finder page.

Her friend had been searching for Lu Lingzi, who, would a day later, come to be known as the third victim of the bombings. The mere degrees of separation, coupled with the number of people I knew who were runners, spectators, and residents of Boylston Street, elicited an eerie understanding of just how closely connected Bostonians are. In the same vain, I felt proud of the care, helpfulness, and camaraderie we all showed one another. In that sense, Boston’s close-knit-ness—the strength of the inter-connectivity of it all — spoke to the notion of “Boston Strong.”

After the initial days, my sense of pride in “Boston Strong” shifted. It was replaced by fear on Friday, April 19 around 1:19 p.m., when Head of Massachusetts State Police Tim Alben made an announcement. A controlled explosion was to occur at what police determined as then-at-large suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s residence.

Norfolk Street. I was in New York City that day, and it was only after one of my roommates had texted me about it that I understood just how close to my apartment all of this was unfolding. I’d walked down this street once, when I was new to the neighborhood and took one turn too early in navigating my way back home. It’s a quiet residential road, and just four parallel streets away from a local watering hole that serves great beer. As I walked uptown towards the Upper West Side, I couldn’t help but feel useless. I felt amiss that I wasn’t back in Boston, where my roommates, friends, and former classmates were on lockdown.

The irony of feeling safer near Harlem and in New York City than in Boston was jarring. Of course, later, a senior U.S. official revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers had planned to attack New York City next. But that afternoon, it felt like some equilibrium had shifted. The paradigmatic model of the September 11-type tragedy — where the threat felt predominantly external and something that occurred to mega metropolises— imploded. The threat was now internal.

Today, the phrase feels conflicted — reminiscent of the post-September 11 patriotism that both bolstered America’s sense of unity and bred an unnerving level of anti-Muslim xenophobia. It was the victory cry, coupled with “U-S-A! U-S-A!” for relieved Bostonians gathered in the Common the Friday night after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured. Despite its good crowdsourcing intentions, the witch hunt rhetoric behind the Reddit disaster fueled Brown University student Sunil Tripathi’s serious misidentification. “Boston Strong” as a concept that conjures community insularity has been gerrymandered by policymakers like Republican Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa who prefaced his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the new immigration bill should take into account “the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system.” Insinuations and beyond, “Boston Strong” is becoming a coveted gem for merchandisers to be trademarked at the time of writing.

As we continue to emerge from the aftermath, I hope we can associate “Boston Strong” in the way that Red Sox fans, Bruins die-hards, and Celtics supporters have embraced it. They pay homage to what happened sans the politics, and put team rivalries aside for the day to unite in support. The phrase returns closer to where it maybe originated, in “Boston Strong Boy,” the first Heavyweight World Champion, a native of Southie. John L. Sullivan, a prodigious and controversial symbol of grit, abuse and racism, emerged out of the ring remembered not just by the rounds he won, but by the temperance from vitriol and abuse he exercised in the final days of his life.