Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Like the rest of the country I was disgusted and dismayed by the Boston Marathon attack on Monday that has, so far, killed three and wounded nearly 180 others. The improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used there were meant to cause maximum carnage. The IEDs were set at intervals apart in both physical spacing and in detonation times, packed with shrapnel, and timed to maximize the number of runner and spectator casualties.
Much of the shock from this event is because of the lack of frequency, thankfully, of these types of attacks in the United States. (As my fellow veterans of the post-9/11 wars know, however, these types of attacks are, or were, tragically too familiar in Afghanistan and Iraq.) But the lack of these IED attacks in the U.S. isn’t for a lack of trying by both foreign and domestic groups. Since 2009 there have been five planned or attempted large-scale IED attacks on the New York Subway system, in Times Square, at Washington, DC, Metrorail stations, in Portland, OR, and in Spokane, WA.
At the time of writing this post, the persons responsible have not been identified. Speculation and innuendo on who carried out the attack is fueled largely by the fact that, as former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes told CNN, “[the attack] has the hallmarks of both domestic and international (attacks), and you can see either side of that.”
In a bizarre Rohrshach-esque test, domestic extremists and anti-government types have asserted a narrative that the attack was a “false flag” operation meant to increase the power of the federal government. Meanwhile foreign terrorist chat sites have hoped that one of their own carried out the attack.
The aftermath of the attack has shown once more that the first report is usually wrong. As Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bateman wrote over at Esquire.com:
So now we have Boston, and already just a day afterwards, theories, counter-theories, and conspiracies are starting to swirl. Initial reports by some outlets were, in fact, as wrong as they were sensationalist, but even now many of those have faded. As time passes, with each small accuracy, we are led to a better picture....
And know, to guide you in this process, that the first report is always wrong. If we can educate all Americans to remember that fact, we might just be on our way to a more useful society.
This is, without a doubt, the key takeaway so far and should be repeated over and over and over again. Unfortunately, however, in a still ideologically charged domestic political environment, some will never accept facts when they go against their preferred interpretations.
Regardless of these interpretations, those responsible will be brought to justice. If the attack is foreign in origin, it could complicate President Obama’s policies of extricating the U.S. from our foreign wars. As Aaron David Miller wrote over at ForeignPolicy.com
Obama may well remain a wartime president until he leaves office. The crisis on the Korean Peninsula, mission creep in Syria, and the prospect of military action against Iran all hold out the likelihood that the next four years will see America more involved in trying to solve the problems of the world. And if the April 15 attack in Boston turns out to be perpetrated by an al Qaeda contractor or part of some Iranian-sponsored black ops, the deadly business of whacking bad guys will intensify. After all, the organizing principle of a country's foreign policy is protecting the homeland. If you can't do that, you don't need a foreign policy.
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