The Corner

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The City on a Hill


Last night we were just about to turn the TV, off but the “news alert” graphic caught our eye. After a brutal week, more bad news: a fatal shooting at M.I.T., then reports of car chases, explosions — all within a mile’s radius of our house here near Harvard Stadium. Sometimes it was hard to tell if a sound came from the TV or the street.

Since then we’ve been ordered to stay in our house. We’re a little more than a mile from the area in which police think they have trapped Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers suspected of Monday’s bombings. The kids had to stay home too, so we’re in a strange “rainy day” mode, despite the sun outside. Between rounds of Memory and conversations about planets, I’ve been thinking about what these attacks mean to our hometown.

Most of the friendly encouragement from around the country has referred to our sports obsessions. It’s true: if you grew up watching the 1970s Patriots, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are semi-divine. But as Bostonians know all too well, that kind of glory is transient. Boston’s real strength — the thing that makes the Tsarnaev brothers, for all their viciousness, seem so small — is the city’s awe-inspiring scientific and academic community.

I grew up here, the son of a doctor and nurse who were drawn to Boston’s first-class universities and hospitals. Now I teach at one university — Brandeis — but in my extended family we have employees of three others. Boston is a company town: Research and education are to this city what movies are to L.A.

And what a place it is: The things that go on in this city are sometimes indistinguishable from magic. The Stata Center, where an M.I.T. policeman died last night defending his campus, houses a computer-science program where hundreds of researchers work on problems as diverse as genetic mapping and solid-state quantum computing. One professor has “studied obstacles to constructing a time machine.”

M.I.T., of course, is also spawned some of the biggest players in the nation’s defense — giants like DARPA, which created the guidance systems of everything from ballistic missiles to drones, or Raytheon, founded in 1922 by an M.I.T. professor and now manufacturer of Patriot defense batteries and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

It’s the same in my own fields, sociology and history. When you’re racing to class and trying not to run over the likes of David Hackett Fisher — well, it keeps you humble.

This commitment to learning is written into our political DNA: Massachusetts’ state constitution is the only to make special provision for a university (“the university in Cambridge”). And yes, this pride in our gosh-darn braininess inevitably leads to some arrogance and snobbery about “fly-over” states (although as rule, the more nakedly political a scholar’s work is, the less standing he or she actually has).

And it’s not as if Boston is alone in taking pride in learning: If anything, Boston is lucky to have emerged in a nation that has a culture of empiricism, argument, and intellectual individualism, a culture that serves as an immune system against fanaticism. Although both sides of the political divide love to dismiss the other as irrational, the very fact that this is such a damning charge is itself proof that we share a commitment to reason.

Over the next few weeks we’ll tease through the evidence to figure out what drove the Tsarnaevs to their savagery. From initial reports it seems to have been some combination of Chechen nationalism, political Islam, and frustrated personal ambition. I can think off the top of my of head of three or four Chechen experts I’ve known in Boston over the years that I’ll be e-mailing tonight.

Just compare all this — a nearly four-century commitment to empiricism and debate, the resources of a wealthy and generous nation, the freedom to found companies that increase the wealth and security of the country — compare all that to a couple of violent thugs who have undoubtedly wrecked hundreds of lives but who, I promise, have not made a dent in the churning billion-dollar research juggernaut that is Boston’s pride . . .

Compare these pressure-cooker lugging punks to the freedom, commitment, and courage that made Boston the original “City on a Hill” and, well — I like our odds.

— Chandler Rosenberger is Chair of Brandeis University’s International and Global Studies program.