There are many harrowing tales of tragedy as well as of survival in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Amid the terrible misfortune of the victims who lost life or limb there were also countless race-day spectators within range of the blasts who benefited from some element of luck or heroism.
Dozens of the injured were fortunate that the Boston Athletic Association’s reception tent was well staffed with emergency medical personnel ready to administer first aid and that top-notch Level 1 trauma centers were within minutes of the bombing site. Several people near the finish line were spared serious injury or death because obstacles or other spectators stood between them and the explosion.
Perhaps no one was more fortunate than a 26-year-old native of China who was not even at the Marathon, but had the most prolonged contact with the suspects. Going by the pseudonym of Danny to avoid attention, he came face-to-face with terror but lived to tell and someday testify about the encounter. His car and money were taken, but not his life.
Imagine how frightening it would be to stare down the barrel of a gun, only then to have your assailant announce he was one of the Marathon bombers. In many similar situations, shrewd criminals have executed innocent victims and bystanders merely to eliminate potential witnesses to their crimes. This carjacking victim was smart enough to convince his assailants he was not a threat, at least long enough to seize an opportunity for escape.
Whether it involved stupidity or sloppiness on the part of the assailants, certain factors helped to buffer Danny from harm and possible death. As the drive around Brighton, Cambridge, Somerville, and then back to Cambridge dragged on for well over an hour, a personal connection was formed between Danny and the two suspects. With prolonged interaction, the Tsarnaev brothers would have come to view Danny as a human being, whereas all those they allegedly killed or injured at the Marathon were to them just faceless targets.
Criminals often find it easier to murder those with whom they have no direct contact. The bombing seems to have been an attack against American life, not specifically American lives. Those killed and injured were unfortunate surrogates of the intended target: America and the freedoms we enjoy.
The other critical element that may have served Danny well was his nationality — the way he looked and the way he spoke. Given his limited time in the United States, his English is far from polished.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has reportedly confessed that he and his older brother were indeed motivated by ideology.
As Islamist extremists, they hated America — and by association Americans — for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As soldiers in their holy struggle, they would have identified Danny as anything but American. He was not blameworthy, directly or by association. And Danny did his clever best to portray himself as a newcomer, telling his abductors he had been in the United States for a much shorter time than he actually had.
The 90-minute confrontation between suspected terrorists and victim finally ended when Danny managed to escape by running from the car as they were stopped for gas. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, obviously lulled by Danny’s compliance, made but a token gesture at stopping him.
No one can say for sure what might have happened had Danny’s car not needed refueling. Even so, Danny certainly can count his blessings that his only victimization came in the form of intense fear and a few dollars, but not even a scratch to his body.
There is no doubt that Danny’s actions and composure under unimaginable stress remain a critical part of what brought this case to a close.
James Alan Fox is a criminologist at Northeastern University and writes the Crime and Punishment blog for boston.com.