Burns: Encountering cultures which glorify our destruction

The Boston Marathon becomes a battleground   

  I see five faces at the finish line. All five are on a mission. All five are determined to accomplish their mission at the Boston Marathon — for better or worse.

The Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, are a death squad. They came to kill. Kris, Kayla, and Clarence are racers. They came to compete.

The two groups, the bombers and the racers, represent good and evil, the marathon becoming a moral drama as well as a sporting event. The playing out of polar opposites of mankind’s character—vice versus virtue — also embodies a clash of cultures.

Today and yesterday by Dr. James F. Burns

Today and yesterday
by Dr. James F. Burns

The story starts with Clarence — Clarence DeMar of Madeira, Ohio, a small Midwest town where my parents grew up. Clarence moved to Boston and took up running. But after finishing second in the 1910 Marathon, he was advised by doctors to give up running due to a heart murmur. He could literally die running.

But Clarence ran himself into the record books instead of a coffin, winning the race a record seven times. DeMar so dominated the event in one decade — winning in 1922, ’23, ’24, ’27, ’28, and ’30—that he became known as Dr. DeMarathon.

Clarence also set a pattern for moving from the Cincinnati area to Boston. My wife and I did so in the 1960s and our niece Lorna also made the move in the 1980s. Lorna became best friends in Boston with Kris Biagiotti, becoming the godmother of Kris’ severely handicapped daughter, Kayla.

Kris lost her husband due to a heart attack — and then took up running as therapy, pushing Kayla in a jogging stroller. She circled the 2013 Boston Marathon, hoping that she and Kayla could become the first mother-daughter duo to finish the race in the wheelchair division. But the Tsarnaev brothers had also circled the 2013 marathon. Evil often wears disguises, cool-looking dudes with backpacks and sunglasses.

Boston’s K Girls conquered Heartbreak Hill — a challenge DeMar had mastered many times — and took aim at the finish line. As they neared their goal, Kris’ fiancé, Brian Bridges, joined them, a split-second before a “BOOM” snuffed out innocent lives and bathed Boston in blood. Brian was bleeding from shrapnel to the head but shielded Kayla from the full force of the blast and guided the K Girls to safety. All survived.

When evil strikes, we want to know “Why?” Why would Jahar — Dzhokhar’s nickname — want to kill an 8-year-old boy watching the race? But little Martin Richard wasn’t “a boy” to Jahar — he was a target. Terrorists glorify themselves and their actions while dehumanizing their targets.

I made eight trips to Belfast and had written about Northern Ireland’s Troubles for three decades before retiring. Kris and Kayla’s close call jarred me out of retirement, sending me into a “writer’s rage,” one of my earliest articles taking Rolling Stone magazine to task for putting a marathon murderer on its cover.

But the article inside the cover did address the agonizing mystery of how Jahar, the captain of his high school wrestling team, so easily transformed from a seemingly typical American teenager into a child killer dedicated to destroying a culture which had assimilated millions of foreign-born immigrants. We were a welcoming nation, the land of opportunity where merit outweighed religion, ethnicity, and ancestry. Or so we thought.

As jurors weigh the fate of Bomber No. 2, we must weigh why six more young men, these from Minnesota, can become dedicated to our destruction. The track I traveled — school, sports, college, marriage, job, family — was the American Dream. Yet young men, primarily of the Muslim faith or no faith at all, are floating from school out into a sea of aimless anti-Americanism where authority is seen as an instrument of evil and repression. We are encountering cultures which glorify our destruction and trumpet values antithetical to our foundational American values. Why?

James F. Burns, a native of Ohio, is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.

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