Editor's note: Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of the forthcoming book "The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age" (University of Massachusetts). He blogs at Media Nation.
(CNN) -- I was going through my Twitter feed Monday morning when I came across this: "Happy greatest day of the year, #Boston!" And so it is. Or was, until about 2:50 p.m., when explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon transformed a celebration into a scene of carnage.
What matters now, needless to say, are the victims — the dead, the injured and their families and friends. But if you are looking for some insight into Boston at this horrible moment, it helps to understand why our marathon matters and where it fits into our civic psyche. Why it was, until Monday, our greatest day of the year.
To begin with, Marathon Monday is a holiday — Patriots Day, an annual commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Not everyone has the day off, but many do, including schoolchildren, for whom this is the first day of spring vacation. That's why so many people descend on the marathon every year, and why so many people found themselves in harm's way.
In a city and a region obsessed with tradition, you couldn't ask for more than the oldest marathon in the country coinciding with patriotic re-enactments of colonials versus redcoats, all playing out against the backdrop of the budding spring. Today was cool but sunny, and -- finally -- with not a filthy black snowbank in sight. It's a time of year that gives us hope of better days to come.
To complete the celebration, Patriots Day marks the annual 11 a.m. Red Sox game at Fenway Park, an utterly local tradition concocted so baseball crowds wouldn't get in the way of marathon crowds. The runners stream through Kenmore Square, a block away from where other, considerably better-paid athletes are engaged in more sedentary pursuits. The Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-2 on Monday. There wasn't much time to celebrate. The explosions came less than an hour later.
As a spectator sport, the Boston Marathon probably hit its peak in the 1970s, when local favorites Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson were dominating the race. These days, it's more of a pure spectacle, and I doubt many of those watching could name even one of the East African runners who have won in recent years.
To be honest, I have never attended the marathon in person, let alone run in it. My only direct involvement came in the early 1990s, when I worked as editor of the official program for several years. It is, nevertheless, something that all of us here take pride in.
Moreover, just about everyone has a personal connection. We all know people who were running in it, and perhaps we donated to the charitable cause they had registered with so they could gain entry. As the terrible news began to spread, my Facebook feed was filled with messages from people I know telling me they were all right, or asking if someone else had been heard from.
I am not privy to what sort of security arrangements go into planning the Boston Marathon, but there's only so much you can do along a 26.2-mile route that passes through seven cities and towns in addition to Boston. As I write this, there is some speculation that bombs may have been placed in trash cans. That may or may not prove to be accurate, but can you imagine securing every trash can, every manhole, every nook and cranny from Hopkinton to Boston?
Sadly, the marathon will not be the same after today. Security will be tightened, and it will transform what had been a joyful and carefree experience into something else. "Boston is a tough and resilient town," President Obama said in his White House remarks Monday evening. And we are. The marathon will go on. The Patriots Day tradition will continue.
But it may also be a long time, if ever, before anyone again refers to this as our "greatest day of the year."
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Kennedy.