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Boston unlocked, blessedly free to criticize

Bostonians cheer the capture of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (Matt Campbell / European Pressphoto Agency)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Down the block from the home of the Boston bombing suspects on Friday night, a neighbor described being subjected to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s frequent anti-American diatribes.

Even while shoveling snow, said the man, a Latvian court interpreter who didn’t want his name published, the older brother ranted on and on about our involvement in Afghanistan. (He was also a bad neighbor, the man said, unhelpfully tossing snow every which way.)

Police looking for Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev in Watertown. (Charles Krupa / AP)

The FBI interviewed the older Tsarnaev brother in 2011, at the request of the Russians, and reported finding no evidence of anything worrying, though Tamerlan seemed to have shared his views with anyone he ever sat by on the T.  And despite Tamerlan’s complaint that he didn’t have a single American friend, in one way he blended in all too well: While the court interpreter found his tirades grating, it never occurred to him to call the cops: “A lot of people in Cambridge talk like that.”

He’s right about that, of course. And while I’m a firm believer in the notion that there’s nothing more patriotic than voicing loyal opposition, I have to admit I was shocked by the reactions expressed by a group of young female writers I’ve gotten to know here. One runner in the group was brokenhearted, but others wondered if the media hadn’t “hyped” the story, making too much of an incident in which, after all, “only” three people had died at that point — many fewer, for instance, than died when a U.S. bomb hit a wedding party in Afghanistan. (In fact, that happened in July of 2002.)

Bombing suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev (left) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (KAAL-TV)

While I’m glad they’re the opposite of provincial, the point of global awareness is not to devalue life here, but to see all people as worthy of respect, and the experience of telling a bunch of smart aspiring journalists why the Marathon bombings really were worthy of blanket coverage was as surreal as the sight of the city’s empty streets on Friday.

On Thursday, I wrote about how Boston was the last place that would be intimidated by what President Obama rightly called the “small, stunted individuals” who’d attacked them. But as we “sheltered in place” on Friday, it felt increasingly ludicrous that Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev — a suspect described by his surprised soccer buddies as “a little bit of a pothead” — had effectively paralyzed even this proud, pugnacious town.

After the crazy night authorities here had Thursday, with the brothers (yes, allegedly, because this is the U.S. of A.) killing, wounding and throwing bombs at cops, I don’t second-guess the initial decision to ask everyone in the area to hunker down. But if the lockdown hadn’t been lifted Friday evening, Jahar would not have been located as soon as he was, by the owner of the boat he was hiding in, who discovered him soon after he was free to go outside.

There were lessons for us all in this terrible week, and mine was this: Sometimes, even as we exercise the rights won for us right here, we forget to appreciate that in much of the world, people don’t feel so free to speak out against their government.

Even if that freedom let evil blend in at a terrible cost, we are at liberty to claim that the president is a sellout or a dictator. A local TV anchor was as free to flap his jaws about “sleeper cells” he knows nothing about as one of my young friends was to shrug her shoulders and say the loss of life could have been worse. We’re free to be wrong, free to provoke and infuriate all day every day if we like. And for that, my fellow critics and complainers, I say God Bless America.

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Politics political writer and anchors She the People who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.


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