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Defying terrorists with a new limb, renewed hope

Dr. James F. Burns Contributing Columnist

April 15, 2014

I first saw fear in a mother’s face in Belfast. Her daughter’s school was next door to a building that had just been fire-bombed by terrorists. The children had been evacuated just in the nick of time, but the mother’s voice, even her hands, still quivered as she recounted the close call to me.


But I saw strength in another mother’s face when she was interviewed in Boston in the aftermath of the Marathon bombing last year. When I recently talked to that mother — Kris Biagiotti—I heard even stronger resolve in her voice as she spoke of handicapped children and how hospitals, firemen, and people like you and me can help them. And defy terrorists.


This story has many facets. Family letters from the 1790s took me to Belfast — eight times. Family tragedy, her husband’s heart-attack death eight years earlier, had driven Kris to rebuilding her life by running in the 2013 Boston Marathon. Kris pushed her handicapped daughter, Kayla, the full distance, 26.2 miles, in a wheelchair, becoming the first females to accomplish that heroic feat. But Kris and Kayla didn’t know that death, destruction, and evil awaited them at the finish line. They had never heard of the Tsarnaev brothers — the accused Boston bombers. Now the whole world has.


My part of the story starts when my wife and I were wed in Cincinnati in 1962 and moved to Boston to begin married life. Charme was a special-ed teacher in Quincy, I was a graduate student at M.I.T. Fear gripped the city when the Boston Strangler took the lives of thirteen women. Sadness, anger, and shock shook Boston when President Kennedy was assassinated. But life moved on. We moved to Florida to begin new jobs and start a family.


The Belfast phase of the story started in 1976 when my father passed on to me “the old Irish letters.” Nine of the old rag-paper parchments had been found at Aunt Josie’s house in Ohio after she died in 1928 and then nine more later turned up under a hay mound in a nearby barn. When the lives of my American ancestor’s two young children were snuffed out by a raging frontier fever in 1805, his Irish uncle sent stoic Calvinist condolences: “Dear Nephew, I am sorry to hear of the deaths of your two children. But still I hope you are in the way of your duty to submit to God’s will, that is to say the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”


Earlier letters of the 1790s were laced with reports of local people being terrorized by rival sectarian gangs with names like the Peep of Day Boys and the Defenders, forerunners of the Irish Republican Army and loyalist paramilitaries of more modern times. “Several killed on both sides in their various scuffels. The Boys has not left a papist family (alone) in the lower part of the county but that they have driven away.” And a nearby Protestant schoolmaster had been silenced by having his tongue sliced off.


In 1979 I traced those family letters to a small farm near the border in Northern Ireland. Just before my family, now including three sons, and I arrived there, a massive I.R.A. half-ton bomb had killed four policemen several miles south of the farm while a gun-and-grenade attack had mowed down four female prison guards just north of the farm. The area was wedged into a deadly vice of terrorist violence. But still we went, finding cousins still living on the same land several centuries later. I returned to Belfast many times, translating my Irish experiences into scores of articles and a university course on the conflict. One of the many politicians I met and interviewed, Ian Gow, was later murdered by the terrorists.


After three decades, I had retired from writing on terrorism — until the paths of Kris, Kayla, and the Tsarnaev brothers crisscrossed in fateful fashion last April in Boston. Kris had been at our son’s wedding and my niece is Kayla’s Godmother. Kris had virtually no knowledge of my involvement in Northern Ireland. And how could she have approached the Marathon’s finish line at Copley Square with anything other than exhaustion and the anticipation of having conquered Heartbreak Hill and making a small piece of history with Kayla? All that innocence was shattered by the first of two explosions.


Kris’s fiancé, Brian Bridges, and Kayla’s uncle, Rick Biagiotti, had just left the sidewalk—where the bombs were—to assist Kris and Kayla in navigating a bevy of reporters waiting to interview them. But the blast intervened. Time stood still. Brian, unwittingly shielding Kayla from the full force of the blast, took shrapnel to the head and was bleeding. But all four—the two men, Kris, Kayla—dazed, confused, confounded, all managed to survive. Others obviously did not and scores were more severely injured, many losing limbs.


My instinctive reaction was to write, blending my Boston background with my Belfast experiences. I wrote of my friend Bob Gourley’s wife, on her way to work one day, having her legs blown off by an I.R.A. car bomb. But Celia Gourley “walked back into her Belfast office just five months later on artificial legs to tearful cheers from her co-workers.” I quoted the Belfast mayor’s letter of encouragement to our Oklahoma City bombing victims — “We have not been defeated by the bomb. You will draw strength from the suffering and courage of ordinary people.” And in the Orlando Sentinel I wrote that “the Boston Strangler terrified the city for two long years; the Boston bombers did their dirty work in just twenty seconds. But Boston has a big heart and broad shoulders—and can be a brawler when attacked. Fight back? You bet.”


A defiant Celia Gourley has shown terrorists that lost limbs need not mean lost lives. Kris, Kayla, and scores of other marathon bombing survivors form the core of a wider, in some sense worldwide, effort to face down terrorism and move on with their lives. Kris recently ran a 21-mile pre-marathon race and is involved in ongoing efforts with Boston Children’s Hospital, city firemen and a network of related charities to assist handicapped children as well as grieving families. She well knows Martin Richard’s heroic family. He’s the 8-year-old boy almost instantly killed by that first blast, his 7-year-old sister losing a leg, but, like Celia Gourley and others, defying terrorists with a new limb and renewed hope for the future.


Kris will be participating as a regular runner in this year’s Boston Marathon. Kayla, Brian, and Rick and a hundred thousand more will be cheering her on, as well as all runners there to make a statement as well as run a race. I marvel at the strange mix of circumstances that knit together my old Irish family letters with modern terrorism, Kris and Kayla with the Marathon bombing, and many families’ heroic efforts to help handicapped children and adults suffering from similar disabilities. May we cheer them all on and unite to support their many worthwhile causes and charities.


But the terrorists? Oh, they all claim to have heroic causes of their own, ones steeped in so much evil and moral blindness that killing children is just collateral damage for their beloved but twisted causes. May God forgive them and help us replace political argument by force with moral suasion, compassion, tolerance, and, above all, respect for each other and human life. My Northern Irish ancestor said of the turmoil taking place there, “The innocent suffer with the guilty.” When it comes to Marathon murders and mayhem, may we aid the innocent and convict the guilty.


Dr. James Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.