Thursday, April 18, 2013

Obama hails Boston as 'one of the world's great cities' at memorial

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As investigators continue to comb footage for clues, president addresses Bostonians at interfaith service for marathon victims

Read the latest developments from Boston live

Barack Obama delivered a defiant message to the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing on Thursday, declaring that if their intention was to "intimidate us, to terrorize us, to shake us from the values that make us who we are as Americans" then they had "picked the wrong city".

In an address at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End of Boston, just 13 blocks away from the site of Monday's carnage, Obama was at times sombre, at times almost tearful. But the thrust of his reflection was uncompromising – that violence would not overcome the spirit of what he described as "one of the world's great cities".

He derided those who planted two bombs close to the finishing line of the marathon where the devices would be certain to cause most human devastation as "small, stunted individuals who would destroy rather than build, and think that somehow that makes them important". In a year's time, he predicted, "on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever, and to cheer even louder, for the 118th Boston marathon. Bet on it!"

On Thursday, it emerged that the massive FBI-led investigation of the bombings was focusing on two men who had been spotted in video footage. Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitiano told a congressional hearing that investigators wanted to talk to the man but she said she would not describe them as suspects at this stage.

In his fifth year in office, Obama is by now no stranger to the arduous task that falls to any modern American president of having to buoy up the nation in the face of gruesome tragedy. He has spoken eloquently after gun rampages in Fort Hood, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; and Newtown, Connecticut, the last only in December.

In this case of Boston, he picked up a theme that was echoed by several of the other speakers at the multi-faith service – the toughness of the city, and its grit in getting back up on its feet. The metaphor was an unspoken but implicit reference to the most desperate aspect of the Boston bombings other than the fatalities – the 13 victims who have had limbs amputated, some losing both their legs.

The most graphic manifestation of the theme was given by the mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, who when the blast happened on Monday was in hospital himself recovering from a broken ankle. He rose out of a wheelchair and stood in front of a packed church of 1,700 Bostonians to say: "We will not be brought down. This is Boston, a city of courage, compassion and strength that knows no bounds."

As the church service was going on, 66 people were still undergoing treatment in hospital, 23 of them with severe leg injuries. Among the hundreds who gathered outside the cathedral from early morning were several walking wounded.

They included Diane Bensel, 39, who was walking towards the finishing line to see her husband complete the marathon when the first bomb exploded a few feet away. "I was engulfed in fire briefly, and I immediately couldn't hear anything except for high pitched noise."

She was wearing a protective boot outside the cathedral and walking with crutches because the blast sent glass or shrapnel ripping through her right foot. It also perforated an ear drum causing possibly permanent hearing damage.

But none of that stopped her coming to the service. "The fact that we were hurt by what happened … I just thought it was important, we all did, that we are part of the moving forward," she said.

But if the common thread of Thursday's healing event was Boston's resolve, the city will to some extent be unable to move forward until a suspect in the bombings has been identified and apprehended. The centre of the city around Copley Square, where the blasts occurred, continues to look like a war zone with camouflaged armoured vehicles blocking the streets and officers in Swat uniforms carrying machine guns posted outside the hospitals.

A massive FBI investigation involving 1,000 agents is coming to a clearer understanding of the bombs, which were fashioned out of common household objects: pressure cookers, rechargeable batteries, and a horrifying inventory of items seemingly designed to maim such as ball bearings, nails and other metal scraps. Agents also have a number of "people of interest" in their sights, gleaned from a forensic examination of digital footage captured by security cameras in the locality and cell phones in the crowd.

None of which, though, will help the two women and a boy who died in the outrage. Obama eulogised them all. Of Krystle Campbell, 29, who worked in a local seafood restaurant, he said: "She was beautiful, sometimes she could be a little noisy, and everybody loved her for it."

Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old student from China who had come to Boston University to study statistics, was "far from home. In the heartache of her family and friends on both sides of a great ocean, we're reminded of the humanity that we all share."

Obama had a special mention for Martin Richard, eight, whose mother was also grievously hurt and whose little sister lost a leg. The boy's last hours "were as perfect as an eight-year-old boy could hope for – with his family, eating ice cream at a sporting event," he said.

The president invoked for the congregation an image that has become one of the enduring symbols of the tragedy of the Boston marathon bombing. It is of young Martin staring into the camera, with large eyes, sticking-out ears and several milk teeth missing.

He is holding up a blue poster board on which he has drawn a couple of hearts and the words: "No more hurting people. Peace." © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Alison Rourke, Rory Carroll, Warren Murray, Peter Walker, Amanda Holpuch 19 Apr, 2013

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