Boston and surrounding suburbs are on lockdown Friday following a dramatic night of law enforcement chasing two suspects believed to be responsible for Monday's Boston Marathon bombings. The manhunt left one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, dead, while law enforcement continues to search for his brother, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, of Cambridge, Mass.
The two men are believed to be natives of Chechnya, but have lived in the United States for a number of years, creating further ambiguity over whether the bombings were an act of foreign or domestic terrorism. Amongst the unfolding search for the surviving suspect, the blogosphere analyzes news coverage of events, and what the long-lasting impact of the terrorist attack may be:
Chris Cillizza of The Fix said the national reaction to the Boston bombings is reminiscent of the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and this attack will also likely have long-term political repercussions:
That series of events calls to mind nothing so much as the three-week period in the fall of 2001 when the country was stunned and horrified by the terrorist attacks of September 11 and then further terrified by a series of anthrax-laced letters sent to two senators and three news outlets.
The comparison is inexact. The attack of Sept. 11 left nearly 3,000 dead; the Boston bombings left only three. Sept. 11 was a pivot point in the history of the United States, a jolting realization that we were not safe even in our own country. The bombings on Monday simply reinforced that new(ish) reality.
The lesson of that fall of 2001 as we look beyond Boston?
1. When the culture is shaken to its core by external events, politics changes too. While the depth of the changes this time around seem likely to be less drastic than what we saw in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the unsettling of the population is, without question, meaningful.
2. The near-term political impact may be very different than the longer-term impact. While Republicans benefited politically from the focus on national security and terrorism in the three years after the events of 2001, the attacks — and the actions the government took — wound up badly damaging the GOP brand over the long haul.
3. Our desire to draw hard and fast conclusions about "what it all means" days after a tragedy like Boston is admirable but impossible. We are standing right in front of a very large picture at the moment, a view that makes true perspective impossible.
Greg Sargent of the Plum Line too said there will likely be political ramifications of the attacks:
There's still a lot we don't know, but it's being widely reported that the two suspects in the Boston bombing — one of whom has been killed by police — are brothers of Chechen origin. According to law enforcement sources, the brothers entered the U.S. in 2002 or 2003, and at least one of them has been a legal permanent resident since 2007.
Some on the right are already pouncing on the news to cast doubt on the desirability of immigration reform. This morning, Ann Coulter Tweeted:
"It's too bad Suspect # 1 won't be able to be legalized by Marco Rubio, now."
It's unclear thus far how widespread the effort among conservatives will be to connect the Boston bombing suspects to the immigration reform debate. But it's certainly something that bears watching. If this argument picks up steam, it will be another indication of how ferocious the resistance on the right to immigration reform is going to get.
Steve Erickson at the American Prospect said 9/11 will forever have an impact on how Americans react to events that have the markings of a terrorist attack:
Consequently, second explosions now instantly suggest something foreign because so often it involves the conspiracy we've instinctively come to think of as jihadist; we assume lone wolves are domestic, or "American," almost by definition. Two resonates as the numerical language of foreign orchestration and thus, within minutes of it happening, some of our more intuitive political chatterboxes deduced Islamic cunning in the attack at Boylston Street near Copley Square, with at least one commentator offering that the whole thing certified Barack Obama's status as the worst president ever.
Americans don't do ambiguity. This is why some part of us is grateful for a clarifying second boom that removes all doubt about the nature of the act if not its whys and wherefores. While the extremes of our political life conclude one thing or the other—and let's not forget perfectly loony leftist suppositions that George W. Bush was really behind 9/11, not to mention other random theories that the current incident was an anti-tax statement by the Tea Party—most Americans are ready, in times like this week, to keep their ideological powder dry while vesting their energy and passion as patriots in mourning the dead and rescuing the wounded, and manifesting a spirit that won't be beaten. Mayhem in duplicates is enough clarity for the moment, but in the meantime, history grooms us to wait for the dropping of second shoes.
While comparisons to 9/11 abound, Charles Krauthammer writes of President Barack Obama's "linguistic unease" about using the word "terrorism," and how in the U.S. the term has a loaded connotation:
There was much ado about President Obama's non-use of the word "terrorism" in his first statement to the nation after the bombing. Indeed, the very next morning, he took to the White House briefing room for no other reason than to pronounce the event an "act of terrorism." He justified the update as a response to "what we now know." But there had been no new information overnight. Nothing changed, except a certain trepidation about the original omission.
There was no need to be so sensitive, however. The president said that terrorism is any bombing aimed at civilians. Not quite. Terrorism is any attack on civilians for a political purpose. Until you know the purpose, you can't know if it is terrorism.
Obama has performed admirably during the Boston crisis, speaking both reassuringly and with determination. But he continues to be linguistically uneasy. His wavering over the word "terrorism" is telling, though in this case unimportant. The real test will come when we learn the motive for the attack.
As of this writing, we don't know. It could be Islamist, white supremacist, anarchist, anything. What words will Obama use? It is a measure of the emptiness of Obama's preferred description — "violent extremists" — that, even as we know nothing, it can already be applied to the Boston bomber(s). Which means the designation is meaningless.
Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare said that the second suspect must be apprehended alive, to ensure that authorities can interrogate him and obtain answers to the countless remaining questions surrounding the motivation and planning for the bombing:
But it is critically important to understand what, if any, connection these suspects have both to overseas terrorist groups and to domestic folks not yet tied to the bombing, and that project will be far easier if the surviving Mr. Tsarnaev is not killed. The question is important both for obvious reasons—if some group is attacking the United States, we need to understand with maximum precision who that is and who is involved—and for less obvious legal reasons: Is this a home-grown terrorist problem that's purely a matter of criminal law? Is this a feature of the US's existing armed conflict with Al Qaeda and its associated forces? Or is this some new overseas terrorist threat—an extra-AUMF threat—against the United States playing out in the streets of Cambridge and Watertown? Or is this an example of a blurry line between categories? The chance to interrogate a Mr. Tsarnaev who can still talk is the quickest and easiest way to answer these questions.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks have also shaped the way the media are covering the Boston bombings and subsequent manhunt, with many eager to draw conclusions before there is much concrete information. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic said the media doesn't do anyone any favors with premature speculations:
What is it like to be a Muslim, or a person frequently mistaken for a Muslim, in the aftermath of an apparent terrorist attack? Americans who don't fit that description can't really know for sure, but three news items from the last few days show that knee-jerk prejudice is inexcusably common. If your ethnic group were treated this way, you'd be walking around paranoid and anxious.
[A] significant minority has shown itself willing to make knee-jerk accusations that do significant harm to perfectly innocent people. Amidst it all, responsible journalists don't disappear the problem. Americans ought to be made aware of all the times innocent Muslims have been victimized in hopes that it makes their would be tormenters less sure of themselves. That is so whether the Boston perpetrators turn out to be Islamists, left-wing, right-wing, or anything else.
The value of speculating about their identity before it is known?
Joe Coscarelli of the Daily Intelligencer highlights the experience of one of those mistaken to be a suspect:
Salah Barhoum, the 17-year-old Massachusetts running enthusiast recklessly splashed on the New York Post cover this morning, is doing okay, all things considered. Despite the tabloid's implications that he and his suspiciously not-white friend were suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, Barhoum hasn't even lost his somewhat naïve faith in the goodness of journalists, "gladly posing for photos and taking media questions outside his home in Revere, Mass.," according to the New York Daily News.
"A lot of people have bags, not just me. I thought, 'Why me?'" he added. "The only thing they look at is my skin color and since I'm Moroccan I'm kind of dark." While he was cleared of any involvement, Barhoum knows there could be lasting damage: "People are definitely going to be looking for me just to hurt me. It's too much," he said. "It's such a disaster. To be blamed for all that injury and death. It's the worst." On top of everything, police recommended he delete his Facebook. If only he could delete the Post.
Rosa Brooks at Foreign Policy commented on the misguided American tendency to dramatize one's personal reaction to national tragedies, even when someone is not directly involved with the events:
Stop. Just stop.
You don't need to keep changing your Facebook status to let us all know that you're still extremely shocked and sad about the Boston bombing. Let's just stipulate that everyone is shocked and sad, except the perpetrators and some other scattered sociopaths.
We Americans have never had to live with the continual insecurity and carnage that is the daily lot for millions around the world, and thank God for that. That doesn't mean we need to wear sackcloth and ashes every day to commemorate the suffering of strangers around the world, but it wouldn't hurt for us to stop acting like a bombing that killed three people has magically transformed all Americans into martyrs and heroes.
So please don't pat yourself on the back for courageously going on with your regular business this week just to "show the terrorists" that they can't intimidate you. Unless you're President Obama or one of a small number of people against whom there are repeated, credible threats, "the terrorists" aren't that interested in you, personally. Carry on. Odds are, you'll be just fine. (Unless you're hit by lightning, which is somewhat more likely than becoming a victim of a terrorist attack.)
- Follow U.S. News live coverage of the manhunt in Boston
- Read Lara Brown: Boston Bombings Reveal the Limits of Security
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