24 April 2013
Last week on Monday, 15 April, two explosions at the Boston Marathon killed three people (including an 8-year-old boy) and injured more than 250. On 18 April, Thursday, the suspected bombers shot a police officer and wounded another. The police killed one of the suspects. The other one was apprehended on Friday night.
The attacks in Boston showed the good, the bad, and the disturbing sides of post-9/11 America. Especially the bad and the disturbing bits offer useful lessons.
The marathon runners and the people of Boston: many individuals rushed to the scene of the bombings on Monday to help the injured. And so many Bostonians donated blood that the American Red Cross had to turn away new donors because there was enough blood for the victims.
The calmness of political leaders and law enforcement agencies: from President Barack Obama to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and from Speaker of the House John Boehner to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, political leaders kept their cool and convinced people that they had things under control.
Law enforcement agencies – federal, state, and local – also did their job well. Although it took three full days to identify the suspects, that was better than catching the wrong people and letting the culprits escape.
The media circus: on 17 April, CNN reported that police sources had told the network that one of the suspects, “a dark-skinned male,” was in custody. Not only was the tip false, it was completely fabricated. A senior CNN anchor blamed “part of the mistake” on the authorities – an excuse worse than the infraction. The comedian Jon Stewart was hardly being unfair when he called CNN the “human centipede of news.” (If you don’t get that reference, click here.)
Law enforcement agencies’ and political leaders’ overreaction: after the shootings on Thursday night, law enforcement agencies – with several thousand officers – conducted a manhunt around Boston. The entire area was virtually locked down to find a single suspect who, it turned out, was hiding in a boat all along. It’s not easy to see things clearly in the fog of war. But shutting down a metropolitan area of 4.5 million people to catch a 19-year-old seemed a little exaggerated.
The problem with this overreaction negatively affected the public in nearby cities as well. I live in New Haven, Connecticut, and the streets of Elm City looked semi-abandoned for much of Friday afternoon. Especially the Yale campus looked like a ghost town.
The likes of Erik Rush, run-of-the-mill Islamophobes, and the countless idiots who harassed people because they “look terrorist”: Immediately after the Monday bombing, Fox News commentator Erik Rush posted a tweet to solve the problem of terrorism: “Let’s kill all Muslims.” When people criticized those outrageous words, Mr. Rush defended his “sarcasm” and called one of his detractors an “idiot.”
The level of intelligence (!) displayed in Mr. Rush’s “sarcasm” and CNN’s “reporting” was part of a bigger problem. A student from Saudi Arabia, who was seen fleeing the scene of the bombings (because who runs away from an explosion?), was first declared a “suspect,” then “a person of interest,” and finally, a “witness.” Others cast suspicious glances on Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Indian American man, who’s been gone missing since mid-March. Cause for suspicion? He wore t-shirts depicting the revolutionary Che Guevara. (Never mind that Guevara, a communist, has become one of the greatest capitalist icons of all times.)
Benjamin Franklin had warned how people who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. I always thought we didn’t quite make that trade-off after 9/11. The Friday lockdown in Boston, however, showed how we still haven’t learned the proper response to terrorism.
A good place to start would be to re-think the “no-fly” and “terrorist-watch” lists with hundreds of thousands of names. Law enforcement agencies have to find better ways of finding people who deserve to be on those lists. Russian security services allegedly warned the FBI about one of the Boston suspects but he never got on any “watch list.” If these lists become so full that we can’t manage them, we will have a hard time catching the real threats to public safety.
We also need to find better ways to help immigrants to integrate to American society (one of the suspects allegedly once said “I don’t have a single American, I don’t understand them”). We also need to do something about the ease with which people get firearms in this country.
But we also need to understand that there will always be deranged individuals – immigrant or native – who will find a way to hurt the innocent – with or without a gun. Therefore, in situations like these, we need to learn to keep our cool. If we lose our heads, compromise on our values, and display fear and hatred rather than calm and love toward our fellow humans, our next experience with a Boston-like attack is going to be worse and even more disturbing.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia and a predoctoral fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.