Terrorism was always supposed to be about the big bang. Remember? Dirty bombs. Rogue nuclear threats. Long ago, before those jets screamed into the Twin Towers and underlined the horrifying point, there was a movie about a Super Bowl under attack. I was there in Atlanta when a bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park at the 1996 Summer Games. I was in Washington on 9/11 when we grabbed our son from school and waited for a plane to drop out of the sky. I made trip after trip to Athens in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, when everyone was sure that the birthplace of sport was the world's No. 1 target. Degree of difficulty seemed to be the name of the game.
But now, as I sit typing in a hotel across the Charles River—where I'd been staying while working on a long-term project—after interviewing runner after runner who walked or taxied the three miles back from the remains of Monday's Boston Marathon, I remember that I lived through the 23 days in 2002 when a pair of snipers scared total hell out of D.C. With one rifle. Out of the hollowed-out trunk of a 1990 Chevy Caprice. Malls were deserted. Ball fields were barren. That too was an exercise in terrorism—to me, the scariest of them all.
What happened on Boylston Street had the same kind of feel. At 2:50 p.m., with the race clock reading 4:09:43, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the 117th running of American's most storied and beloved road race. It was, of course, an attack designed both for devastating and symbolic effect, as well as maximum impact, and the scenes of panicked crowds, the smoke and scramble of police and fans, the subsequent shutting down of rail service and postponement of public events, ensured that Boston will join Washington and New York City, and London and Madrid, in the brotherhood of iconic metropolises that have suffered in this age of fear.
But Boston was different too; the bombs seemed designed more for the masses than the monumental. The explosions went off well after the small crowd of elite runners had crossed the finish line. (Last year's average time was 4:18:27.) The thick stream of recreational runners—regular folk who would never have a shot at the Olympics—was flowing in then, and mothers and brothers and lovers and kids were waiting at the end to cheer them on. Just to run in the Boston Marathon, for them, was the moment of a lifetime.
"Nobody really knew what was going on," said Diane Guganig, 46, of Elmhurst, Ill., who was nearing the finish of her first Boston Marathon when chaos struck the course. "Then we got to 25½, under a mile to the finish, and runners started coming from the other direction saying, 'They aren't letting us finish.... Race is over.... Quit running.' "
Guganig's boyfriend was waiting at the finish line, a block away, when the explosions happened. She texted him. When she got no response, she began to panic. "People were freaking out because we couldn't get through," she said. "Everyone had their family waiting for them at exactly that time. You couldn't get through on the phone; texts were spotty. People were crying."
At my hotel, hours later, runners were still trying to find members of their clubs, family members—and vice versa. One by one everyone stopped, many with blue-and-gold marathon medals around their necks—the ones who had finished early—to watch the now endless loop of carnage on the big-screen TV. There was news of the dead, of dozens injured, of limbs being blown off. The sound of sirens sliced up and down the darkening street outside.
Everyone, even as they scrambled to pack and get out of town, tried to appear stoic. "I'm in just such a state of shock," said 31-year-old Dan Kane, of Collegeville, Pa., who finished dehydrated and left the medical tent 15 minutes before the blasts. "I'm so upset by it all. But I don't think it would stop me. I think my legs will stop me from doing another marathon before this will stop me."
But it was almost too soon to believe anything anyone said. Guganig and her boyfriend found each other eventually, by text, but at the moment she spoke, they hadn't seen each other yet. In the coming hours Boston police would be warning residents not to leave their homes, warning hotel guests not to leave their rooms, warning people not to go near trash cans. The Bruins game was postponed. You could almost feel the city curling in on itself. Over and over the TV showed a woman in the street praying.
The thick stream of recreational runners was flowing in, and mothers and brothers and lovers and kids were waiting at the end to cheer them on.
JOHN TLUMACKI/BOSTON GLOBE/GETTY IMAGES