The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on April 23, 2013
The Real Boston Story

Now that media excitement is beginning to die down concerning the recent horrific events in Boston, it is time for more reflective analyses to take pride of place. It used to be that we could rely on the mainstream print media for at least some of this reflection. That cannot be ruled out, but it is no longer likely. Case in point: Now, more than 10 days after the finish-line bombings, I have yet to encounter a single media story or commentary that identifies the proper analog to what occurred in Boston.

In three weeks during the month of October 2002, 10 people were killed and several others seriously injured by what became known as the beltway sniper attacks. John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo were responsible for this killing spree, which veritably paralyzed the Washington, DC area. The parallels between the sniper attacks of October 2002 and the bombings in Boston earlier this month are quite striking.

  • The killings were perpetrated by two relatively young males, the elder one clearly in command and the younger one compliant and mainly clueless.
  • Radical Islam had some hard-to-define, attenuated impact on the motives behind both sets of crimes, but psychopathology of one kind or another clearly had the upper hand in both cases. (I witnessed John Allen Muhammed trying to defend himself in a Montgomery County, Maryland courtroom, as he cross-examined Lee Boyd Malvo; I just happened to be in the building as part of jury duty on a completely different case, and just let myself into the room to watch. And I can tell you that Muhammed was very not normal, albeit in a contained and hence very spooky manner.)
  • Just two untrained individuals, with no military background or ties or connections of any logistical kind to any group or movement, managed to paralyze an entire major urban area of the United States. [Post-datum erratum: This is inaccurate. Muhammed was in the US Army, fought in Desert Storm, and was a good shot--sorry, but I simply did not remember that when I was drafting.]
  • Law enforcement eventually shut down the operation, and the justice system prepared to punish the evildoers, in its own peculiar and slothful way. (John Allen Muhammed was found guilty of murder in September 2003 and was sentenced to death; but the death penalty was not inflicted until more than six years later.)

Obviously, there are also some differences between the two cases. The Boston case was more concentrated in time, and if one counts the murder of Sean Collier, there were only two iterations of murderous behavior. In the DC sniper case, the trail of murder actually started elsewhere and involved more than a dozen separate incidents over a longer period.

Nevertheless, what unites the two incidents is that they involved attacks on soft targets. There was no reasonable way to protect those slain by the beltway snipers, just as there was no reasonable way to prevent what happened at the Boston Marathon. The FBI could not have prevented either tragedy, in the latter case because the law in all but extraordinary cases prevents close surveillance of a potential terrorist who has not broken any law.

Yes, the FBI had a file on the elder Tsarnaev, thanks to a Russian inquiry, but since 9/11 we have failed to face the fact that the FBI, which is and has always been part and parcel of the Justice Department, is never going to be much good at domestic counterterrorism. These guys do the best they can, but the culture of law enforcement—putting guilty people in jail after maximally non-appealable legal proceedings—runs at very different angles from the culture of preventing terror attacks, the sort of thing MI5 does in the United Kingdom. Almost no terrorists have police records before they commit murderous acts, which is why our current legal set-up is helpless to prevent atrocities like the one in Boston.

And that fact highlights, just by the way, the predictable inanity of the ACLU chastising authorities for not reading the younger Tsarnaev his Miranda rights. Under the disheveled circumstances, it was clearly the right thing to do.

Let’s quickly get past a few other silly reactions to the Boston tragedy. Restricting immigration or disrupting negotiations on immigration law reform are irrelevant. Gun control laws are also irrelevant. Just about every foreign policy consideration I can think of is irrelevant. How marginal populations in United States become radicalized, whether it be religious radicalism or some other sort, is not completely irrelevant but it might as well be for practical purposes, given that the potential ways and means here are so utterly capacious. TSA is certainly irrelevant, and so for most part are the other mostly counterproductive forms of bureaucratized paranoia with which we have saddled ourselves over the past decade.

This doesn’t mean that radical Islamic organizations, not least what’s left of al-Qaeda, can be safely ignored. It doesn’t mean that having made our border control agencies more integrated and functional was a bad idea (though we still have a ways to go on that score). It doesn’t mean that sane immigration policy reform or better gun control laws are bad ideas. But none of this has anything to do with what happened in Boston.

After the beltway sniper affair, I was concerned that other semi-rational but not entirely dysfunctional lone-wolf terrorists might go in for copycatting. As all security experts understand, but are usually reluctant to talk about in public, it is all too easy to bomb or shoot up the ticketing and baggage retrieval areas of airports. Same goes for “big box” shopping venues, movie theaters, sports events of all kinds, houses of worship, schools, and one could go on. Back in the autumn of 2002, copycatting did not happen. I’d like to be confident, based on that non-experience, that it won’t happen again. But we don’t know that.

So what does this realization about soft-target domestic terrorism tell us?  It tells us that we cannot defend against such attacks except at disproportionate cost and by dint of entirely counterproductive methods. (Try to imagine, if you dare, TSA-type geniuses deployed at every Walmart and cineplex in the country……) It reminds us of what the strategy of terrorism has always been and still is: The use of deadly force against innocents in order to provoke authorities to be untrue to and destructive of their own principles. It is a strategy of the weak, and its success requires a sucker to conspire in his own defeat.

So what to do? Well, the first thing is to keep organized terror operations, foreign or domestic, out of the soft-target business. To the extent that we have return addresses for such organizations via intelligence gathering and monitoring, we can do this.

Second, when such horrible acts occur, we must be stoic.  President Obama had this exactly right the other night when he said that terrorism will fail because Americans will refuse to be terrorized. Even if it’s not true, it was still the proper thing to say.

But third, for Americans to be stoic, and so to be not terrorized, the American media, and entertainment “industry” generally, must stifle its addiction to the sensationalist, the maudlin and the perverse.  It was no accident, I think, that the finish to the Boston Marathon attracted the Tsarnaevs because they knew that their evil deed would be caught on film and video, and almost instantaneously transmitted worldwide.

I confess that I don’t know how to get a pandering, irresponsible media to stop pandering and to stop being irresponsible. I do know that the incentive media exposure offers would-be terrorists is perhaps the biggest long-term problem we have when it comes to potential outbreaks of soft-target lone-wolf terrorism. The hawkers of razor blades and bad beer need for the show to go on, and what was the tragedy of the Boston Marathon from a media perspective if not an (obviously unscripted) episode of reality TV?

  • Pave Low John

    Finally, someone with a sober analysis of modern terrorism in the U.S. Unfortunately, Dr. Garfinkle is right when he notices the lack of stoicism in our media/entertainment industry, which leads to the inevitable chorus of “don’t just stand there, do something!”

    But there really isn’t anything to be done. CCTV won’t work, having even bigger and more fearsome-looking SWAT teams won’t work (what is it with U.S. law enforcement and tactical gear, by the way? Too many guys wishing they were working for JSOC?), more cumbersome laws that no one can enforce won’t work, nothing will work until we, as a nation, truly understand the threat we face.

    But it will take something truly horrific to impart that understanding and it may not last that very long regardless. Think about how everyone thought and acted in the year following 9/11. Now, compare that year to how people responded to terrorism in 2012. Not to trade in stereotypes, but Americans are not a very patient people and tend to have a bit of a problem with attention-span.

    By like the article says, all of this makes it very hard to fight the kind of low-level, “propaganda of the deed” sort of terror that is actually a throwback to the anarchists of the late 1800s and early 1900s in Europe and the U.S.

    • adam Garfinkle

      Thanks, copter man. I’m glad someone reads this stuff.

  • Dave F

    You say that not much can be done in the area of Foreign Relations or Immigration. I say not. It would make sense and be relatively easy to prohibit clergy visas for clergy from countries which do not extend the same relationship to American clergy. Saudi radical clerics, which are a very significant part of the internal radicalization problem would become insignificant. When Christians can spread the Gospel in Saudi Arabia (and other countries) then Saudi Imnans are free to come to the US and spread the Religion of Peace.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      I’m afraid that your suggestion would take care of a minuscule fraction of the problem.

  • John Burke

    I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the real possibility that Tamerlan had serious connections with transnational jihadists other than via the internet. He did spend six months in Dagestan and/or Chechnya, and I’ve yet to hear even an attempt to explain why the Russian security service asked the FBI and CIA to check him out and what was the basis of their suspicions.

    That said, I’m glad to see that Garfinkle makes the point that the FBI is ineffective as a counter-intelligence agency due to its deep-seated organizational culture in which identifying crimes and gathering evidence to make cases in court. This is crucial. It’s not that the FBI “dropped the ball.” They simply do what they do. Tellingly, the bureau was blissfully unaware of this serious shortcoming in explaining that it “closed the case” on Tamerlan after finding no “derogatory
    information” because it had “no legal basis” to investigate further in violation of “federal guidelines.” Disconcertingly, nearly everyone seems to accept this as the end of it.

    Of course, a counter- intelligence agency like MI-5 would almost certainly not “close the case” because intelligence officers are interested in intelligence, not arrests and trials (indeed, CIA did put Tamerlan on the TIDE list but of course could not investigate a US resident living in Cambridge). After 9/11, we had a unique opportunity to create such an agency, but the FBI carried the day, asserting that it could play that role well. It doesn’t. I doubt it ever will.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Your assessment of how the FBI thinks is spot on. It’s not their “fault”; it’s just that they do what they do.

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  • K2K

    I was surpised that Boston does not use NYC tactics, where no one would be allowed near the finish line without an inspection of every backpack or purse. NYPD even does that for entry to Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

  • jack

    Mr Garfinkle is utterly wrong (I am knuckle-dragger right wing extremist Jewish scrapper, from childhood, against the local catholic bully boys).


    We do not have churches shot up much anymore b/c we have armed guards, thus localizing target hardening. Thus gun laws permit private carry in some states, and thus gun reform exactly grows out of Boston and Newton– in Manichean (US) states, those states which believe in the existence of evil. In other states which believe in something or other, maybe, the triumph of goodness, that Stoicism defeats evil, well, we will have a test soon enough.

    Post-Newton we are going to have more armed guards in schools. Columbine marked a change, from a hostage standoff wait-and-see to a rush-in-and-take-fire-if needed response.

    Post Newton we are indeed having the national debate of democracy, over guns’r'good. The gun clingers have beaten the gun-grabbers, for now, I am a clinger.

    Boston is exactly about immigration, about assimilation, about the Green Menace (green is is the color of Islam, not eco), replacing the Red menace or yellow peril (We Manicheans color code evil.)

    Boston/ immigration, is exactly about whom do we admit, separate from but only partially, admitting illegals from the south or legals who bring war with them.

    With liberalism from say 1960s (I am a 60s relic) we have much social disaster, as well as much social improvement. With closed and scrutinized borders we did not have these mass killings, unless history lies to us.

    End Prefatory comments,

    = = =
    Start Boston and Law enforcement.

    (1) The Russians told us these guys were bad.

    (2) These guys were bad.

    (3) We had these guys in our files.

    (4) We examined these guys and found they were not bad.

    (4a) Obviously the Russians were right and we were wrong.

    *(5)* WHAT is the measure of badness, and what do we do.

    - – -

    After 911, an airport security guy said one of the hijacker flagged his hijacker radar.

    SO WE KNOW WHO IS BAD, we and the Russians, and so what do we do, how do we translate subjective badness into preemptive permanent detention, eg Gitmo. How do we convert suspicion and ‘vibes’ into prison.

    Islam is part of badness, subjectively. Muslim preachment in mosques is bad, subjectively.

    THAT is the question.

    Obviously we have a gazillion false positives, so what is our acceptable false positive rate

    Again WE KNEW b/c the Russians TOLD us, that there were bad guys.

    The conspiracists are way ahead on this, explaining the Russians were deceiving us. somehow. Ok.

    But we knew these people.

    So HOW DO WE CONVERT subjective suspicions with no objective evidence, into action.

    This is called police work, who is ‘wrong’ – we a;ll know ‘wrong’ when we see it.

    START THERE, not with stoicism.


    Now back to the DC sniper.

    DC-ites DID go on as normal, ‘law of large numbers’ most folks aren’t killed.

    The shooters randomness of target made them less fearsome; had they chosen fat chinese children, tall white women, green shirted truck drivers, Whole Foods Tote baggers, THEN there would have been terror.

    Or had they shot six per day or one more each day then there would have been terror.

    And we would have shot ourselves up fighting back.

    The shooters were in the end caught by plodding police work, a shop lifter in another state left fingerprints in a magazine..; and they HAD been stopped by street level dragnet.

    The diff between Boston and DC, was lockdown.

    DC went on, Boston had martial law without benefit of declaration, except Orwell’s ‘shelter in place.’

    do we want THAT lesson ? civilian lockdown?

    = =
    Back to Boston – the bad guys hijacked a SUV, and then managed to lose their hostage, who escaped and persuaded the police that he had bneen hijacked by the bad guys, who then tracked his van, by cell phone or van GPS, and then one guy shot his way out of a road block

    and then a civilian found the survivor in a boat where the tarp had been cut, how random lucky was that

    THAT is what we have learned,

    dumb bad guys, sharp civilians, cops who lose firefights and lose suspects

    THAT is the lesson

    not stoicism

    I prefer Manicheanism.

  • Max Segal

    Mr. Garfinkle,

    There is one factual error in your otherwise excellent piece. You write:

    “Just two untrained individuals, with no military background or ties or connections of any logistical kind to any group or movement, managed to paralyze an entire major urban area of the United States.”

    In fact, John Allen Muhammad served in the U.S. Army, where he qualified with the Army’s standard infantry rifle, the M16, earning the Expert Rifleman’s Badge. This rating is the Army’s highest of three levels of marksmanship for a basic soldier. He was discharged from military service following the Gulf War, as a sergeant, in 1994 after service in the Persian Gulf. (wikipedia)

  • Adam Garfinkle

    You ought to be embarrassed by what you have written, bu you’re probably not.

    • Max Segal

      Care to explain?

  • ARH

    I couldn’t agree more about the stoic portion (something easier said than done, now that I live in the DC area rather than the relatively safe confines of my native Hoosier state). That said, be wary lamenting “the pandering, irresponsible media,” as anything more than market participants acting as market participants do: bringing to the masses that which they desire. The human condition, the need for emotional evocation, and the desire to break from our otherwise mundane lives (but only at a safe distance) demands we see this kind coverage; and the “closer” the better. It’s as if we desire to see evil so that we can proclaim it so, and then go forth and slay it; not unlike the fictional versions of this tragic story that roll out time and again (albeit in softer, friendlier forms) with each summer’s action blockbusters. Take note, I am not trying to paper over the horrors of terrorism, or avoid casting moral judgment upon those who perpetrate it. I’m simply agreeing that stoicism is the best way to combat these individual incidents in the aftermath.

    My favorite, and frequently used quote by George Kennan is:

    The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us. It is only the cheerful light of confidence and security which keeps this evil genius down at the usual helpless and invisible depth. If confidence and security were to disappear, don’t think that he would not be waiting to take their place.

    The United States is wonderfully prosperous, safe, and secure country (relatively speaking anyway). The “pandering” media may make it seem like it’s not at times, but the job of leaders and statesmen to prevent the loss of confidence through calm example, every bit as much as it’s their job to lead the military/police/intelligence efforts to thwart future attempts.

    Adam, great piece as usual. Insightful, well written, center-right commentary that doesn’t turn me off by dripping with sarcasm and thinly veiled disdain for the left (like WRM).

  • Pave Low John

    I was embarrassed to read it, I thought posts like that were usually saved for less, how should I say it, intellectual websites.

    Back on topic: I am kind of curious if there are going to be any copy-cat attacks inspired by the total media freak-out during that week after the Marathon. Either there are a lot fewer jihadis in the U.S. than I once thought or the feds are really cracking down on their list of usual suspects right now and the smart ones are laying low.

  • peter38a

    Dr. Garfinkle, a very well laid out exposition of terror and an open society but I think you left out a critical part: Leadership!

    Casualties? Horrific on a personal level they may be we are virtually untouched. In the Blitz (1940) the British suffered 40,000 some killed; in the two succeeding mini Blitz’ wrought with “V” weapon they lost 40,000 more. The general rule in combat is that for every KIA two are wounded so the casualty list would total something like a quarter of a million civilians but with Churchill’s leadership the people “carried on” as the Brits do so very well.

    You mention Obama but one never knows what he will say, I sometimes think he doesn’t either until his lips start to move; so a “Chamberlain in the White House but it’s a ill wind so they say and this gives us the opportunity, and what a grand opportunity, to each be our own Churchill! I hope you’ll agree, a handsome game indeed.

    I will end with the words of the Iron Duke, “A hard pounding gentlemen but we’ll see who can pound the longest.”

  • heini

    Dr. Garfinkle correctly points out the limits inherent in the FBI’s trial oriented approach as far as countering/preventing terrorism is concerned. But his analysis stops here because he’s reluctant to admit you can only fight terror with terror. That’s understandable, even laudable, to our Western mind but no less ineffectual.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Interesting that you choose the Beltway shooters as your parallel. As this unfolded a Muslim friend said she was praying it wasn’t Muslims. I said I thought it had the feel, the shape of a Muslim attack, but that didn’t make it so. Neither did I think it had a right wing, even Tea Party shape. Blowing up Boston on Patriot’s day would just feel sacrilegious, at least to my Tea Party friends. I also didn’t buy the Saudi kid who got tackled for acting suspiciously, but things began to click for me when I heard the reports of the pressure cookers being used. That’s third world, but ameteur. IEDs done by people who can’t get access to military or commercial grade explosives and need a strong container to confine home brewed explosives long enough to build up lethal pressure. Add shrapnel and you are going to maim a lot of people. So I immediately thought of the Times Square bomber – a self initiating jihadi, and disappointed (failed?) immigrant, but this time they get the bomb right. I would imagine the Rose Fertilizer Fiasco in Times Square was on these guys radar – after all that bomb was successfully organized and delivered – it just didn’t blow up. So for me Boston was the next logical step based on lessons learned, not by some home grown John Allen Mohammed, but unassimilated Muslims immigrants turned self initiating Jihadis. Little Rock, Ft Hood and so on – plus countless such attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike South Vietnamese boat people for example Muslim culture seems to have a taste slaughtering those it regards as enemies in just this fashion – even those of a slightly different sect. This is a new kind of war and we are not making a lot of progress coming to grips with it. Bluntly, we have not yet learned how to fight it. Our familiar categories of thought wont work, just like our FBI is not functionally equipped to stop these guys even when they are pointed out to them.

    Like others I think that that the elder brother may have had some help learning how to do it, but probably didn’t have direct support – otherwise they would have had better explosives and an ‘exfiltration’ plan. I also feel a lot of compassion for the younger brother as someone misled by an older brother, but he is also a stone cold killer. I agree that he is a lot like Malvo in some ways (who did many of the shootings I believe) and I expect he wont be executed, but I think it would be a mistake to think of him as essentially innocent.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Well I’ll try again and see if my comment appears or disappears again. While I think the parallel with the Beltway shooters is helpful in some ways, I think there is a much stronger parallel with the Time’s Square bomber. Both of these were not home grown like John Allen Mohammed, but disgruntled, perhaps failed immigrants who turned to jihad. Many immigrants fail, few become terrorists. The moment I heard pressure cookers were involved I thought ‘third world’ ‘amateur’ and, if Muslims, then making sure they didn’t make the same mistake as the Times Square bomber. And it was Islamic terrorism – again. There have been over 20,000 Islamic terrorist attacks worldwide according to since 9/11. (The site is hostile to Islam but they appear to be able to count) Of the 50 most wanted terrorists by the FBI all but two are Muslim. Evidently the FBI can still count even if it can’t prevent Islamic terror attacks. I’ve read Rumi. Done Salat with Sufis. I understand that Islam is one of the world’s great religions. But something is wrong. But for the most part we pretend otherwise. It is pretty clear they are not going to stop attacking the West and each other and until we understand what is going on we are not going to find a way to stop it.

  • Anthony

    “So what does this realization about soft-target domestic terrorism tell us?” Well I may be stretching, but Adam Garfinkle your article (Bonds of Citizenship) in Washington Monthly gives antidote, beyond police and national security measures, to ameliorating our soft target exposure: rehabilitating social trust. Fine article by the way.

  • Anthony

    Your washington Monthly article forthrightly provides antidote to our soft-target business – renewing social trust.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Thanks for mentioning that, but you should know that the Washington Monthly item is just an excerpt from BROKEN: AMERICAN POLITICAL DYSFUNCTION AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT, which is an ebook available on the TAI website. If you like that idea, you might also like the many others presented in the book.

  • Nathan

    Re: Lorenz / Islam,
    In the end, isn’t this largely a Muslim problem, meaning, it’s for Muslims to solve? Not in a centralized way, but mosque-by-mosque, imam-by-imam; reflecting, denigrating, and purging the ideas that have built up over the years to justify bombings and terror attacks?

    But perhaps, the roots of these attacks aren’t really in Islam, it is merely a rallying cry and ready justification by those who have more worldly concerns. The economic and political isolation of large portions of middle eastern countries’ populations, and tiny fragments of ours, leads to the desire for destruction. Islamic jihad is an enabler, but not the principle cause.

    Just a theory…

  • Felipe Pait

    Boston is back to normal. Therefore, we are stoic enough to refuse to be terrorized. What the president said was true and proper.

  • Craig

    Boston will never be the same, they accepted imposed martial law without a whimper. There should of been riots. 10,000 armed agents to look for a bleeding unarmed stoner! He was found 366 meters from his blood stained get away vehicle. Barney Fife could of found him with a old bloodhound and wouldn’t of even needed his “bullet” nor bothering waking up Andy. They were just trying out all their military gear for use on citizens. How much ” jihadist” training do you need to empty to the powder out of fireworks into a pot and add nails etc ? A team of SEALs could shut down America for as long as they wanted. A month ago I thought the North Koreans had zero chance, they still have nearly zero chance with missiles, but with 200 well trained and equipped agents spread across the country they could own the place in 24 hours. The best part would be that the Homeland SS would do most of the heavy lifting for them. An airline here, a train there maybe a utility or 2, total chaos.