Around 1770, John Singleton Copley composed a portrait of Ralph Inman. The hardly starving artist, by virtue of immortalizing upper-crust Bostonians like Inman with his brush, had become America’s most well-known and well-compensated painter. Approaching his fourth chin and third wife, the white-wigged merchant, as his appearance on a Copley canvas confirmed, had made it in America too. A few years later the painter and the painted turned their backs on the country that had made them fabulously wealthy by becoming loyalists to the Crown. Copley sold his 19-acre Beacon Hill estate and fled to England, never to return to the country of his birth. Inman, who departed Cambridge for occupied Boston, watched his grandiose 180-acre estate expropriated by the revolutionaries.
There is something perverse about Boston and Cambridge memorializing Copley and Inman in prominent city squares, the inappropriateness mitigated only somewhat by the association of the turncoat artist’s name with a cultural district, and the turncoat fatso’s name with a mecca for delightful eats. That the squares named for two ancient ingrates served as the alpha and omega, the starting gun and the finish line for a contemporary ingrate’s murderous Patriots’ Day plot, seems eerie but apt. Before the brothers Tsarnaev detonated the bombs in crowded Copley Square that they had assembled at their Inman Square apartment, they too had benefitted from the generosity of neighbors. Like Ralph Inman and John Singleton Copley, the Boston Marathon Bombers highlight the varied human response to benefactors. We resent them. We take them for suckers. We project our self-contempt upon them. We don’t necessarily love them.
Indeed, during the decade or so they spent in Cambridge, the Tsarnaevs received at least $100,000 in welfare assistance, including Section 8 housing, EBT cards, and cash. In addition to food, housing, and spending money, the pair relied on their neighbors’ generosity to pay for higher education. Cambridge awarded Dzhokhar a $2,500 “City Scholarship” to attend the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where he flunked seven courses in three semesters; government granted Tamerlan $5,566 to attend two state-run community colleges. When Tamerlan’s girlfriend accused him of smacking her in 2009, the accomplished amateur boxer relied on a public defender to extract him from the ensuing legal jam. Once the Mercedes-driving pugilist started a brood of his own, he declined to work in favor of the dole. Welfare runs in the family.
Before a cemetery 500 miles to the southwest agreed to accept the terrorist’s corpse, the Worcester funeral director in possession of Tamerlan’s body had asked the government to help him bury it, a call seconded by his state senator, Democrat Harriette Chandler, who insisted: “The federal government needs to step in.” Government officials demurred. “This isn’t a state or a federal issue,” Governor Deval Patrick opined. “It’s the family’s issue.” The family with issues apparently doesn’t see it that way. After relying on Governor Patrick’s state for food, shelter, education, health care, legal services, and much else, it’s easy to see why the Tsarnaevs might see a funeral as the American taxpayers’ responsibility, too. Frustrated in his attempts to part with the departed, the funeral director volunteered to ship the body back to Russia on his own dime. “I’ll pay for it myself,” Peter Stefan offered. “It’s only a couple thousand dollars.” From his origins in the Soviet Union to his demise in Watertown, Tamerlan Tsarnaev personified the cradle-to-grave welfare state.
Governor Deval Patrick, who ordered a lockdown on law-abiding citizens and conducted warrantless searches of homes during the April siege, calls the terrorists’ welfare files confidential. To the extent that any information on the public assistance no longer remains private, the public—those people paying for the assistance—derives most of its knowledge from rogue state legislators and the reporting of the Boston Herald, which stubbornly holds to an antiquated vision of journalists as something other than stenographers for politicians. So, discerning whether an “Obamaphone” detonated the explosives that killed three and injured 264 on Marathon Monday, whether Romneycare covered the medical expenses of the wounded terrorists, or whether the feds should investigate the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance for possibly bankrolling jihad necessarily rests on a murky understanding of the facts made so by politicians protecting themselves rather than privacy. It may be our money. But it’s none of our business.
THAT’S THE CAMBRIDGE WAY. Noncitizens such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev possess civil rights far beyond what actual citizens enjoy. Chief among these is the right to hide one’s illegal activity from law enforcement. Since 1985, Cantabrigians have declared theirs a “sanctuary city.” By law, city employees must shield inhabitants from inquiries or arrests regarding their immigration status. No services—such as welfare programs—can be denied based on citizenship. The city even approved non-citizen voting in civic elections, a measure to which the state legislature has not given its blessing.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev isn’t the first villain to find sanctuary in the city. The Inman Square mosque that he attended has had the misfortune of serving as a favorite haunt for terrorists. A federal judge sentenced the Islamic Society of Boston’s founding president to 23 years in prison in 2004 for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Saudi King Abdullah, then a mere prince. Aafia Siddiqui, sentenced in 2010 to 86 years in federal prison for, among other transgressions, participating in a plot to poison New Yorkers and attempting to kill her interrogators with a firearm, worshipped at the Cambridge mosque when she attended MIT and obtained a Ph.D. from Brandeis. So did Tarek Mehanna, an American pharmacist sentenced to 17.5 years in federal prison last year for plotting to kill American shoppers at home and soldiers abroad. The house of worship, really a home on a residential street converted into a mosque, suggests it might be a bad neighbor through its dizzying Crayola-box paint job. Confirmation comes from the fact that several of its regular visitors acted on fantasies of murdering the neighbors. Multicolored homes house dark characters.
Coincidentally, in 2004, more than four out of every five Cambridge voters supported the “Curb USA Patriot Act” ballot measure, which enjoyed a wider margin of victory in the city than in any other municipality in the commonwealth. Two years earlier, the city council had passed a resolution demanding noncompliance with the Patriot Act. By a 5-4 vote, the elected body demanded that the “U.S. Attorney’s office, the Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Massachusetts State Police, and local law enforcement authorities and city departments report to the Cambridge Human Rights Commission regularly and publicly the extent to and manner in which they have acted under the USA PATRIOT Act.”
Actual patriots haven’t fared much better in Cambridge. When the U.S. Army celebrated its 230th anniversary on Cambridge Common in 2005, the police—no word whether they notified the Cambridge Human Rights Commission—arrested seven protesters. The mob booed an 11-year-old boy, whose father was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, as he led the Pledge of Allegiance. While “Taps” played during a wreath-laying ceremony honoring the dead, they chanted: “Bush is still lying / Soldiers are still dying.” In contrast, when the locals hold their weekly “Pardon Bradley Manning Stand Out” in support of a frequent visitor to the city now residing in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the event elicits no controversy.
Why on earth would an anti-American terrorist imagine he could hide in such a place? The question leaves Cantabrigians befuddled. As school superintendent Jeffrey Young wondered in the New York Times, “How is it that someone could grow up in a place like this and end up in a place like that?” After all, Young’s public schools pledge through their mission statement’s opening line to be “committed to promoting an environment of social justice.” Next year’s course guide for Cambridge Rindge & Latin, the public high school that the terrorists attended, proclaims “opportunity, diversity, respect” in a headline catchphrase. The superintendent of schools described the city where Dzhokhar and Tamerlan spent the last decade as “beyond tolerant.”
WHEN I TRAVELED to Inman Square two weeks after the bombing, the shock hadn’t worn off. “I was pretty surprised,” explained Nathan Creed. “He was literally living right down the street.” The Tsarnaevs’ makeshift bomb factory stands about a tenth of a mile from the East Coast Grill where Creed works. Creed doesn’t think a Muslim immigrant would have any difficulty fitting in. Several immigrants second Creed’s assessment of Cambridge as a welcoming community. Creed opines, “I think Cambridge is a very, very accepting place.”
Indeed, from Revolution Books in Harvard Square to People’s Republik bar in Central Square, the city hosts a number of enterprises that might be run out of another town. One of Cambridge’s charms, especially pronounced in Inman Square, are the locally owned independent businesses that provide the city with a unique identity. “It’s pretty much crowded, a lot of small shops, a lot of nice restaurants in this neighborhood,” Harsh Thakkar, who works for a Cambridge biotech company, says of Inman Square as he waits for a haircut at Troy Anthony’s Barbershop. “I usually come out here to some bars and restaurants.” However diverse its assortment of stores and ethnicities, the city speaks univocally when it comes to politics. President Obama received 86 percent of the vote against a candidate hailing from the next town over, and registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 11 to 1. The city’s parochial cosmopolitanism, which confuses its provincial outlook for worldly broadmindedness, engages views foreign to the northeastern urban academic enclave with its own brand of xenophobia.
A community based on alienation has been far more responsive to others sharing that alienation. Ralph Inman, who had abandoned his unprotected wife at their Cambridge estate when he fled to occupied territory, was arrested in 1776 as he attempted to abscond from liberated Boston to England. Despite a son fighting for the Crown, a daughter marrying a Redcoat, and a betrayal of his countrymen, Inman eventually became one of a few loyalists whose petition to regain lost property succeeded. Cambridge can be a tolerant place, but often the tolerance extends to those who do not deserve it and fails to envelop those who do. Executed “witch” Lizzy Kendal, that poor Harvard Square newsstand proprietor arrested in 1926 for selling a copy of H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury to a Watch and Ward agent, any Harvard University student forced to travel off campus to participate in ROTC between 1969 and 2012, and David Smith, the 11-year-old boy jeered as he led the Pledge of Allegiance on Cambridge Common, surely merited as much forbearance as Ralph Inman and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
In the bars along Cambridge Street, patrons wonder whether a trip to Chechnya or perhaps to dark corners of the Internet transformed their neighbor. Nobody in Ralph Inman’s square wonders whether the radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev occurred closer to home.
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