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Boston never surrenders

Story highlights

  • David Gergen: Bostonians will grieve, but terrorists picked the wrong city to try to frighten
  • He says the city is an intellectual, cultural bastion but it's not soft
  • He says Abigail Adams' letter to son heading into peril captured tough New England spirit
  • Gergen: Difficulties "call out great virtues," she said in letter

Here in Boston, people will grieve for many days. How could anyone be so evil as to plant a bomb that would murder an 8-year-old child, rip the legs off parents and devastate a celebration of athletics that is pure joy. These were murders that wrench the soul.

But if these cowards thought they would scare this city -- that their acts of terror would actually terrorize -- they picked the wrong place. Boston, as President Barack Obama so rightly said Monday night, is a "tough and resilient town" -- always has been and always will be. It will heal but will not forget; it will care for the wounded but will make the murderers pay their price.

Boston has a reputation as an intellectual town, and it is that. Two of the world's best universities are here, along with a dozen other fine colleges and universities. It is electric with creativity and innovation. As they showed again after the bombing, its doctors and hospitals are world-class. Citizens can find a great concert or art gallery anytime they want. No wonder that in contrast to most other aging cities, young and old are streaming here to live these days.

David Gergen

But that doesn't mean Boston is soft. Just the opposite. Boston has plenty of fight, too -- just ask any team that has banged up against the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics or Bruins. Since 2004, don't forget, Boston has won championships in all four major sports. That doesn't happen to softies.

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The graveyards here are full of glorious men and women -- brave souls who carved the first communities out of wilderness, stood up first against British oppression, stood up first against the abomination of slavery, stood up early for the rights of women, and in recent years has stood up early and often for the rights of gays and lesbians. Harvard has lots of Nobel laureates, but it is also proud that it has the largest number of Medal of Honor winners of any university, save the military academies.

Traditionally, the marathon itself occurs on Patriots' Day in Massachusetts -- a moment when people take time off to remember Lexington and Concord. One can watch re-enactments of the British marching to rid themselves of rebels -- and men without uniform but deadeyes with a rifle picking them off from the woods. If you want to remember the grit of the early men and women of Massachusetts, pull down your copies of David McCullough's histories. Reread "1776" and its fabulous stories of Bunker Hill and lifting the British siege of Boston (when men pulled cannons all the way across Massachusetts to chase away the most powerful navy in the world).

Or reread "John Adams," the book that was originally intended to be about Adams and Jefferson -- until McCullough fell out of love with Jefferson and into love with Abigail. One of my favorite episodes in the Adams book occurs when her husband insists on taking their teenage son, John Quincy, on a perilous voyage to England. Abigail writes a farewell letter to John Quincy that captures the New England spirit:

"It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues ... qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."

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In most of the country, that spirit is called toughness; in New England, it is often called hardiness. And with the passage of time, it has not disappeared.

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Monday's bombings cap a 50-year period for Boston that has been marked by violence, tragedy and grief. It started with the assassination of a favorite son, John F. Kennedy, in 1963, and continued with the assassination of his brother Robert, later the plane crash of young John Jr. and the loss of another brother, Ted. So much sadness across these years.

Yet there has been more. Massachusetts lost 1,537 in Vietnam, 12 in the first Gulf War, and 118 so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. On 9/11, two of those planes flew from Boston's Logan International Airport. Violence has also stalked the streets of Boston, but as they have done so often, people here stood up against the tide. In the late 1980s, gang violence and murder were rampant; by 1990, Boston felt like Chicago today as it had the highest number of killings in its history, many among the young.

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But even if it is occasionally knocked down, as it was by these bombings, the real Boston story is how it always gets up again. That spree in the '80s and early '90s of kids killing kids, even at funerals, so shocked the city that leaders of all stripes -- political, religious, business, nonprofit -- initiated a comprehensive, community-based strategy to reach at-risk youth early, and over five years, the rate of youth homicides dropped 80%. There was an upward spike in the mid 2000s, but the numbers are now again falling steadily.

War, violence, tragedy -- Boston won't surrender to darker forces.

Monday's bombings shattered any feeling of safety. People here looked with horror into the abyss. But count on it: Boston is still alive with the spirit of Abigail Adams. Great necessities will call out great virtues, and qualities that may seem dormant will wake into life, forming the character of new heroes and new leaders.

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