We wrote a couple of days ago about the ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ moment through which the country was passing. We knew that there had been a terrible attack in Boston, but we did not know who was responsible. For us, this represented an opportunity to reflect on the pure evil of an attack on peaceful citizens without being distracted by the politics if any of the attack. For some, however, it was an opportunity to speculate about who was responsible: was the loon (or loons) behind this crime a tax resister, a white supremacist, an Islamic religious nut or what? Some on what passes for the left in the United States these days expressed the hope that the attackers were white men, others voiced a full-throated hope that the attackers would turn out to be Muslim.
As of this writing, the city of Boston is still shut down and we don’t know exactly what has happened, but it appears that the hopes of both groups were fulfilled in part. The brothers apparently responsible for the attack are white Caucasian males, and they are also Muslims. The Tsarnaev brothers are believed to be Chechens who may have spent time in the former Soviet state of Kyrgyzstan; it is not yet known whether their motivations were religious, political or muddled. With the death of the older brother, presumably the ringleader, we may never know exactly what mix of ideas and emotions drove him to his ugly and sordid end.
It will take time to process this attack, and unless the surviving brother is captured alive and tried, the human reality behind the attack may remain veiled. But there are some things we do know now, and they are worth noting.
First, this country remains vulnerable to terror attacks. The Marathon bombers with a relatively small amount of unsophisticated material were able to wreak immense havoc. As of this morning, there is no public transit, no taxi service, no Amtrak service and air transportation disrupted in and out of one of America’s most vibrant cities. The economic costs are substantial and will fall heavily on immigrants and hourly workers for whom the loss of even one day’s pay is a heavy blow. The cable news channels and the national conversation are fixed on the manhunt; there is nothing else on the news. That two young men on a small budget can accomplish all this will give many of our enemies food for thought.
Second, Russia must look to its Olympics. The winter games are scheduled in Sochi, a beautiful city of palm trees and orange groves on Russia’s stunning Black Sea coast that is dangerously close to the unstable regions of the Russian Caucasus. There is no evidence currently connecting the Tsarnaevs to any organized religious or political group, but that is no consolation for Russian authorities as they think about their security problem. The violence in the Caucasus has spawned organized terror groups and also created unguided small groups that may be much harder to track. Many countries are going to be hesitant about sending their athletes to Russia next year, and many tourists will likely stay home.
Third, the attack strikes a blow against the Obama administration’s core strategy for dealing with a dangerous world. One of the core guiding ideas of the current presidency is that by overreacting to the terror threat the Bush administration made a bad situation worse. The Obama administration has tried to bring cool and calm to the situation, working hard to prevent new terror attacks in the United States even as it sought to defuse the international climate, wind down the wars and turn the nation’s perception away from the concept of an existential struggle with radical Islam to one of a police action against a handful of radicals and specific organization.
There is much to be said for this approach, but the administration has always known that any sign of domestic terror would challenge it. That fear is surely one reason why the Obama administration has been consistently willing to challenge civil liberty activists with heavy handed enforcement and intelligence gathering measures both at home and abroad. It is impossible to tamp down the anger and the fear associated with terrorism without curbing terror itself. It is likely that concern for the viability of this strategy helped generate the otherwise bizarre statements from so many “hoping” that the cause of the terror attack was a domestically focused right wing group, preferably white and male.
The Marathon attack is one more reminder that Americans cannot wall themselves off from problems in other parts of the world. And it goes to show that the blowback theory of terrorism is probably overstated. America is a minor actor in the Chechen tragedy, but the consequences of that struggle are dominating our headlines today.