3. The original marathon — the race Pheidippides ran to bring to Athens the news of the Greek victory over the Persians — took place on the fault line between two civilizations. John Stuart Mill said that, had Darius prevailed, the civilization of Europe and the West would have been nipped in the bud. “The battle of Marathon,” he wrote, “even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings.”
Had the Persians gained the victory at Marathon, the new forms of individualism and freedom that developed in Athens in the fourth and fifth centuries b.c. might have been crushed, and what Arendt called the “conformism, behaviorism, and automatism” of Persia might have prevailed. In fact, the novel freedoms of Greece survived, however imperfectly, in the West, and over time a spiritual culture that insisted on the value and dignity of every individual enlarged and extended them.
Today much of the world has embraced these freedoms, or is trying to. But Monday’s bombings suggest that the differences between East and West remain profound, however impolitic it may be to say so. It is only natural that we are as proud of our own free and tolerant society as Pericles was of the freedoms of Athens, that “city open to all the world.” But there is a tendency to complacency in our self-satisfaction; liberty, after all, is the exception, not the rule, in human history, and our own could quite easily disappear. I doubt the bombers were conscious of the historic meaning of the marathon they attacked, but the ease with which they repudiated the freedoms that Marathon stands for and that all subsequent marathons commemorate should give us pause, particularly if, as seems all but certain, the Tsarnaev brothers were the culprits. For they had benefited, in America, from this free way of life and still they turned against it.
4. “It had been good for that man if he had not been born.” The hellishness of what the bombers did brought to mind that Biblical sentence, as terrifying as any. But another sentence from the same book also came to mind, one that is easy to forget at a time like this and hard, perhaps impossible, to live up to when our chief concern is to defend ourselves against those who are trying to destroy our way of life. That is why it is all the more necessary to keep in mind. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you . . . ”