The Cambridge Feeling

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Five days ago, I put on my headphones, turned on some new music, and set out for a walk in the hour before sunset in Cambridge. It was chilly, and I wore no coat, but I walked slowly nevertheless, reveling in the city’s every detail. The next day, Marathon Monday, my evening walk felt differently. I’d avoided tragedy, but only by chance. My mother reassured me that she had been “half a football field” from the second bomb, a fact that cheered her but sounded too close to dumb luck to console me.

Terrorism does not scare me. I would still walk the streets of Boston, and of Cambridge, any day. I’m sure that there are hardly any who feel otherwise; Bostonians are rational, Cantabrigians, too, and they know the odds are in their favor. How do we unpack this feeling, then, the one that robs us of sleep after an attack?

As much as you want to feel when these things happen, there’s a limit you reach, shattered only when you see SWAT teams lined along the street which you drunkenly walked while too broke to pay for a cab some Saturday night. The streets where you smiled at your landlord through his shop’s floor-to-ceiling glass window, entranced by his fingers weaving patches into torn rugs late into the night. Where you walked for hours with friends, exploring the patchwork of public housing and mansions, dingy convenience stores lined next to bookshops for mystics, dissidents, artists, and scholars. And in June, where you danced outdoors with all types at the foot of city hall, not really noticing the diversity until an out-of-towner remarked on it.

Everyone is staring where you once were, and the cops are poised to blow up other bombs found two blocks from your old apartment. An MIT cop, the kind of guy who never expected this sort of thing, gets shot outside of the building where you spent the first three days of your week. Living now, as I do, in Baltimore, one expects a certain amount of crime. You do not wish to be mugged, but you know that the probability of the crime is high.

I never could understand how New Yorkers felt about 9/11. That strange mix of pride and violation, removed from fear and hate. A desire for vengeance, sure, but directed toward individuals not groups. I’ll never be able to process events like this the same way again. It’s selfish, maybe, but that’s a limitation of humans. You can only fully empathize with feelings echoing those you’ve had before, and so maybe we can at least say that acts of terrorism enhance our humanity and community.

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