The Boston Bombing and its Aftermath - Commentary

The full meaning of the extraordinary drama of the last week–which began with the bombing of the Boston Marathon and ended with the death of one suspect and the capture of another–will take some time to unravel. Here are some preliminary thoughts on various aspects of the attack and the manhunt:

  • The FBI deserves considerable credit for the speed with which it managed to identify and hunt down Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who apparently planted the bomb. Quite a contrast from the bungled investigation of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing which first focused on security guard Richard Jewell, who was wrongly suspected of being the bomber. Even after Eric Rudolph was identified as the perpetrator it was another seven years before he was finally apprehended. The lightning speed of the marathon bombing investigation may be a tribute to the greater skill and experience that the FBI has gained in terrorism investigations since the 1990s–or it may be due simply to the ineptitude of the youthful bombers who made no attempt to leave the area and who drew attention to themselves by shooting an MIT police officer and carjacking a Mercedes.
  • The New York Police Department deserves considerable credit for foiling potentially even more deadly acts of terrorism such as the planned bombing of the city’s subway and of Times Square. In recent years it has become fashionable to criticize the NYPD for its intelligence-gathering among the Muslim community; it has been accused of infringing on civil liberties. In fact there is scant evidence that anyone’s liberties were trampled. There is considerable evidence that the NYPD’s highly effective intelligence gathering has kept the city safe. Other cities, including Boston, would do well to learn from the NYPD’s example.
  • The Tsarnaev brothers’ rampage will surely embolden immigration critics who are trying to block sensible, bipartisan legislation that would provide a path to legality for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. In fact the border-control measures being pushed by immigration proponents are utterly irrelevant to stopping such acts of terrorism–all they would do would be to interfere with Latin Americans who are moving here in search of a better life and, as Catholics, are unlikely recruits for Islamist terrorist groups. The Tsarnaevs were not, after all, here illegally–the problem is not with how they arrived but with how they developed once they arrived.
  • Many Americans, myself included, have explained the relative lack of domestic terrorism since 9/11 by pointing to our success in assimilating immigrants–something that we do better than Europe, where there is a much larger and more disaffected population of Muslim immigrants. I still think there is considerable explanatory power in this analysis, but we must realize that even American Muslims can be susceptible to the lure of extremism. The Tsarnaev brothers, as imperfectly assimilated immigrants, were similar to Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. The answer is not to stop immigration; it is to maintain our surveillance of potential extremists, as the NYPD has been doing, and to do a better job, if we can, of assimilating new arrivals.
  • The Russian government has a lot to answer for because of its brutal and incomplete pacification of Chechnya, the homeland of the brothers Tsarnaev. We don’t yet have all the details of how they became radicalized, but clearly outrage at the Russian brutality–the Red Army has killed more than 100,000 Chechens since the 1990s and turned Grozny into rubble–led them, like many of their countrymen, to embrace the radical doctrines of Islamist groups that have assumed the leading role in the anti-Russian resistance. Al-Qaeda and its ilk have found fertile ground among the Chechens, converting many of them to its Salafist creed which preaches hatred not just of Russia but of the United States and other infidel nations. The likely result of the marathon bombing will be to draw the U.S. and Russia closer together in fighting Chechen extremism, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the driving force behind Chechen terrorism is Russian oppression–even while recognizing that no amount of provocation can excuse attacks on innocents, especially innocents in a place like Boston that has no connection at all with the events of the Caucasus.
  • This terrible bombing has shattered our post-9/11 complacency. There has been a tendency to think that because Osama bin Laden has been killed and there has been no repeat of 9/11 that the threat from terrorism is overhyped. There have been calls to shutter Guantanamo’s detention facility, to stop renditions of suspects, to scale back interrogation and surveillance of suspects, to stop drone strikes and even to repeal the authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaeda. We do not yet know if the Tsarnaevs had contact with any terrorist network but, whatever its origins, their attack shows that the threat from terrorism remains real–and that it is not only our airliners that are in the terrorists’ crosshairs. We cannot afford to let down our guard or to repeal the measures that have kept us (relatively) safe since 9/11. Indeed we may need to step up security around “soft targets,” which abound in our large and open country.

Those, as noted, are my initial thoughts. I imagine there will be more to say once we find out more about the background of the bomber brothers and especially about any links they might have with terrorist organizations. In this regard the extended trip that Tamerlan took to Russia in 2012, when he reportedly visited the Caucasus, is particularly important and suggestive.

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