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Should Grief Impel Policy? Only Sometimes.

The public reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings appears, at least so far, to be exemplary. The shock over the crime and the sadness about the victims has been great, but it has not prevented the country from going about its business a day later. While we can expect heightened security measures wherever people gather in the coming days the country is, as it should be, carrying on and refusing to succumb to panic. There is great and understandable frustration about the lack of knowledge about the perpetrators and their motives, but at least for the moment that is not entirely a bad thing. The lack of information about the identity of the bombers or their motives is acting as a check on the impulse to jump to conclusions about the event. In the absence of a villain or a root cause, the Boston bombing is just a tragedy and not a political tool.

Yet as much as this gives us some space to think about Boston without the need to employ it in the service of some predictable meme, it should not obscure the difference between drawing reasonable conclusions from events and exploiting them. The contrast between Boston and the most recent national trauma in Newtown is not only in terms of the scale of the crime but in the way much of mainstream opinion makers are asking us to think about it.

It is true that that our current ignorance about the bombers prevents observers from using it to discuss a particular threat, be it radical right-wingers or Islamists. But once we do know the answers to our questions, there should be no reticence about conducting a public discussion about how best to deal with the source of the terror. That’s why those who are speaking about the need to avoid using Boston to rally concern about terrorism the way 9/11 focused the nation’s attention on the threat from al-Qaeda are wrong.

As much as some seem to desire to put us back in a 9/10/01 mentality about terrorism, the sense of urgency that followed 9/11/01 was not the product of George W. Bush’s fear mongering but a reasonable response to an atrocious attack on the United States. While not everything that followed in terms of U.S. policy turned out to be a brilliant success, there was nothing artificial or the product of deception about the need for America to start fighting back against the Islamist war on the West.

While the Boston attack is, thank God, not on the same scale as the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, the people who did this must also be tracked down and rooted out of their holes, be they somewhere in this country or, as in the case of al-Qaeda, on the other side of the earth. It is neither alarmist nor exploitive to say that if some group is behind this atrocity all its members and sympathizers must be considered dangerous enemies against whom the full force of American power must be used. There is, after all, a difference between a rational response to a specific threat and the desire to exploit a crime to promote a political response to an event that is not directly related to the crime in question.

This is instructive since so many of the people who are so insistent that Boston should not lead to a disproportionate government response to terrorism are often the same ones who have been asking to use Newtown as an excuse to enact far-reaching gun legislation.

Ever since the terrible events of December 14 when a madman murdered 20 children and six teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, there has been a constant refrain in the national press for Americans not to let go of their grief. There is widespread disgust about the notion that Americans have started to think dispassionately about the crime rather than be impelled by their horror into agreeing with whatever gun restrictions the president has urged the nation to adopt, even if they would not prevent another such crime. After Newtown, the very idea of the country keeping calm about guns in the way they are now being asked to lower their temperature about terrorists–no matter who they might be–is anathema. In that case, grief and fear are considered appropriate drivers of policy by liberals while terrorism may not be.

Those seeking explanations for why the president’s gun agenda has run into a ditch only months after Newtown should contemplate how fragile a political tool fear and emotion can be. If the post-9/11 concerns about terror persisted for years after that event it was because, in spite of mistakes the government may have made, the fears that event whipped up were not out of proportion to the event that generated them. If other events are not capable of sustaining political agendas, it may be because the connection between these crimes and the suggested policy response is not as strong as some might wish it to be.


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