The Terror and the Time: reflections on the Boston bombing

With retrospect, it seems inevitable that the dramatic shutdown of a major city and the house-by-house manhunt which led to the killing and capture of the Boston bombers would seem justifiable to most Americans. Unquestionably the carnage at the finish line of the Boston marathon needed a strong response from local law enforcement, but foreign observers, particularly those from countries with chronic terrorism, must have been struck by the ease with which US security forces could close businesses, schools, subways, trains and even cancel a Major League Baseball game, in order to pursue a single 19-year-old terror suspect through the streets of Boston. As it happens, the lockdown may well have delayed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest, for it was only when a local house-owner finally left his house to go for a smoke in his backyard that he discovered the fugitive hiding in his boat.

The US media’s response to the bombs and the manhunt was often slipshod and the duplication and global redistribution of its errors, via social media, repeatedly fed an ugly xenophobic strain in the coverage. Anxious for a scoop, CNN’s John King didn’t bother to check before he shared a tip-off from a police source that the suspect was ‘a dark-skinned male’; the New York Post reported, erroneously, that police were treating a Saudi Arabian man as a suspect; and amateur online sleuths mistakenly identified Sunil Tripathi ‒ a Boston University student  ‒ as a likely suspect, largely because he was deemed to be ‘out of place’ as a spectator near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and he was exactly the sort of “dark-skinned male” that online ‘digilantes’ were looking for. (Tripathi, who suffered from depression, was subsequently found dead in a river in Rhode Island ‒ the circumstances of his death remain unclear.)

In sharp contrast to the speed and liveliness of the online rumour mill, the contextualization of the actual story was largely left to print media. Several intelligent and sensitive pieces appeared in highbrow periodicals like the New Yorker magazine, but these were the exception rather than the rule. Most American commentators shied away from noting that on the day of the bombings dozens of people had also been killed by terrorist bombs in Iraq. A few brave souls pointed out that privately owned American guns had taken 11 American lives on April 15  (among them the murder-suicide perpetrated by an off-duty Brooklyn police officer who shot her boyfriend and infant son). And at least one online commenter noted the dreadful irony that Boston, where the IRA and its fundraisers had often been welcomed, should now find itself the victim of a terrorist atrocity.

The US Senate’s decision to forgo even basic gun control legislation during this period underscored the tacit assumption that special rules apply to America’s guns. There now seems to be an unspoken rationale among US politicians that gun crimes, however bloody, are the work of a few crazed individuals. Their excesses should not be used to scale back America’s precious civil liberties ‒ even though 90% of the population and the majority of the National Rifle Association approve of rudimentary gun control measures. On the other hand, nothing should be allowed to impede the pursuit of foreign-born terror suspects.

That US law enforcement officials chose not to read Miranda rights to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and to charge him with using a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ is also revealing. There remains, a decade after the September 11 attacks, a reluctance to let domestic courts prosecute terror suspects even though they are clearly best suited for this purpose. Three years after President Obama promised to close Guantánamo Bay, his government was forced to concede that Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law should be tried by federal courts rather than a military commission. (Recently, prisoners in the Guantánamo facility staged a hunger strike ‒ desperate at the lack of progress in resolving the many legal and political ambiguities in their cases.) This inaction, following such a bold campaign promise, is nothing short of disgraceful. The American public’s indifference to this matter is striking: even at the start of Obama’s second term, its conflicting opinions as to what should be allowed during a ‘war on terror’ are largely unresolved.  Here again, the Boston bombings are an uncomfortable reminder of how effectively a few bad men can kill and maim innocent civilians and unsettle the social and political life in a mature and stable democracy.

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