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?