News of the Boston Marathon bombing came to us as two huge stories and just a hint of a third. A fourth story, the most important one, was never mentioned. I followed the news with intense interest, not only because I had friends in that race, but because the Boston Marathon had for years been the holy grail of my dreams when I was a young runner.
The first of the big news stories was that of a terrible attack that, unlike the bombings which have killed and maimed Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, was a horror we were actually allowed to see without censorship. Recall that horrific photo of a man being wheeled away from the carnage with both of his lower legs blown off--the protruding bone and gore right there for us to witness. That had happened to hundreds of young American men in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the media had never shown us the photos. This was new. But while the captions and commentaries from Boston expressed nothing but horror, let's not kid ourselves: the audience ratings got a huge boost. (If you watch TV, you might be aware that detective and cop shows these days seem to be in a sort of ripped-off-legs-and-arms race, as each show tries to boost its ratings by showing more gore than the next: Witness the episode of the show NCIS that featured scenes of several murder victims who'd been cut and mixed together by some evildoer into a "meat jigsaw puzzle." When my wife and I saw that, we gagged, but apparently that kind of scene titillates enough viewers to keep the producers vying to see how they can make their stories even more gruesome.) The Boston bombing was a real-life horror show, and behind the genuinely saddened faces of the reporters and news anchors, it was making money for their corporate managers and investors.
The second Boston story, which perhaps served as a kind of redemption for the unabashed sensationalism of the first, focused on the public backlash at the cowardace of the bombers, a redemption best expressed by the "Boston Strong" banners that began to appear within days, and by the public rallying of even such passionate Boston rivals as New York Yankee fans to the notion that beneath the rivalries of sports, we are all united in our outrage and determination not to be intimidated by terrorists. With this story, a wave of sentimentality washed through the country. I feel compelled to observe, however, that sentimentality is notoriously easy to feel, and it costs nothing to express outrage. To actually do something about such violations of our civility is much harder. The media are far more inclined to show the "Boston Strong" signs than to pursue the difficult question of how Boston (or America) can actually get stronger.
A third story, sketchily touched on, was the disturbing question of why two young men who'd emigrated to America from a more troubled part of the world would be motivated to do such an unthinkable thing to their host country. Reporters found little or no enlightenment about the suspects' mental state, and quickly came to the all-too-easy conclusion that the brothers had been diabolically influenced by jihadist extremism. That, of course, didn't address the fact that those two young men were only the latest in a long series of mass murderers (in Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech, and a hundred other places) of whom the majority were home-grown Americans who had nothing to do with jihadist grievances.
The fourth story, not told at all, is in my view the most important: the story of the marathon runners who were there that day and what their accomplishment can tell us about the current state of our nation and world. Every one of the more than 22,000 men and women who crossed that now infamous finish line had spent hundreds of hours, most of them for years, in fair weather and foul, training for this day with a dedication that could have been an epochal inspiration for the 99.9 percent of Americans who do not practice such discipline. The trouble, I suppose, is that today's reporters are too lazy or too poorly educated in the skills of serious journalism--or too directed otherwise by their employers--to have seen that possibility. But the truth, right before our eyes, yet unmentioned by the reporters who flocked to the scene, was that one of the world's greatest assemblages of strong, enduring, and dedicated people had come to Boston to prove to themselves and their friends and families that ordinary humans can achieve far more than most of us ever thought. In a world (and country) struggling to achieve the goals of a better life we profess to believe in, that Boston Marathon demonstration of human potential and uplift--and its companion demonstrations in the marathons of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and a hundred others--should have been big news whether bombers had done their dirty deeds or not.
What journalists could have probed is the now voluminous evidence from physiological and neurological science that cardiovascular fitness, along with the kind of mental discipline practiced by the runners who came to Boston has tremendous--potentially world-changing--benefits for both physical and mental health. That, in itself, isn't news--although the media give far too little attention to it. But the fact that the number of Americans who have chosen to follow a hard new path to high-level health and capability has grown from a few thousands to more than 50 million since I first ran Boston in the 1960s--that is huge news. The police and FBI moved with admirable swiftness to tackle the immediate emergency, but it was the runners who demonstrated one of the essential a keys to coping successfully with a much more pervasive and long-term threat.
In the winter of 1960, president-elect John F. Kennedy introduced an idea that may have seemed too radical at the time to have much immediate impact on the country's course, but which took root and has become what may yet be a critical determinant of the country's future. Kennedy introduced his idea in an article for Sports Illustrated, titled "The Soft American." At the time, the United States was facing the very real threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, whose fist-pounding leader Nikita Khruschev had famously told America, "We will bury you!" Kennedy knew the U.S. would need to heighten its military readiness, but he also knew something that in the long run may prove more important: that even the most powerful military on Earth can't win the day for its people if the people are weak. Kennedy also knew that the kind of weakness that threatens a society's ability to survive is not just a weakness of body, but of intellect and spirit. He had been alarmed to learn that American boys who'd been screened for military service over the previous few years had been embarrassingly unfit. One of every two of them had been rejected by the military as "morally, physically, or mentally unfit." And that was half a century before the obesity epidemic hit the fan.
Kennedy was convinced that if America was to survive in dangerous age, its people need to be fit not just for pullups and 1-mile runs, but for the ever more demanding mental and moral challenges of keeping our country secure while also keeping it free. In his "Soft American" article, he wrote, "if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work, and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America." He knew that building fitness isn't just mindless "jock stuff"--it involves developing the disciplines of long-range planning, dedicated practice, mental toughness, and ability to rebound from injury or setback. Those are also the qualities it takes to build a strong and resilient society. The year Kennedy wrote his article, several hundred runners entered the Boston Marathon. In 2013, a hundred times that many did--and tens of thousands more wished they could. And while the race volunteers and others near the finish line who rushed to help the bombing victims were heroically rersponding to an immediate crisis, the runners who'd dedicated themselves to reaching that finish line were--whether they thought of it this way or not--responding to an ongoing national crisis, as heroes of another kind. If a majority of Americans had their kind of dedication and grit, the country would be vastly stronger and more free of fear and insanity than it presently is. That's the story the media missed.