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The day after the day after

4/17/2013
A vigil for 8-year-odl Martin Richard, killed by an explosion at the Boston Marathon. Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

There is a stirring fiction at the heart of every marathon: that a single runner named Phidippides brought from the battlefield to Athens news of a great victory won in war. "Rejoice," he says, "we conquer!"

Blame Robert Browning.

His 1879 poem "Pheidippedes" is probably the source. And the likely inspiration for the modern marathon. Browning borrows the name and the notion of the heroic long-distance messenger from his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who cribs the story from Lucian, who lifts it from Herodotus; 2,500 years later, what we think of as history turns out to be poetry.

And maybe poetry is what we need most this week.

Sports aren't immune to the worst of politics or political violence. Especially across the past half century. Munich 1972. Atlanta 1996. London 1997. Madrid 2002. Madrid 2004. Iraq 2006. Sri Lanka 2008. Pakistan 2009. Egypt 2012. Even our games are no guarantee of safety.

Nor has the United States always been safe from itself. Long before Oklahoma City or Columbine, there was Haymarket and there was Wall Street and there was Bath, Michigan. Metesky. Kaczynski. Rudolph.

Every case different, every case the same. Senseless arguments made on behalf of confusion and fear.

Now bombs in Boston. Poison to the Senate. To the White House.

And an inventory of the best in ourselves. From Lehane. Pierce. Cullen. Merrill. Ford.

The flowering of a thousand stories in the aftermath.

More than play or distraction, exercise or profit center, symbol or representation, sports are an affirmation of life. A consecration not just of the individual, but of our stubborn persistence as a species -- despite every effort to destroy ourselves. We are no farther from chaos, from the force of disorder, from an unsound mind, than the ticking of a clock or the thickness of an envelope.

Is any free society worth that risk? Is any free society worth the price we pay for it?

It is. Emphatically so.

And this is the essential human tension across time and history. The fight between the best in ourselves and the worst is the same fight we've been fighting from the beginning, and against the same enemy. A fight in which history is best reimagined as poetry, as a bright sun and a long stride and a message on its way from Marathon to Athens, bringing us the news of our great and certain victory.