you're reading...

News reports

Terrorism hits home

Published in the Sunday Herald on April 21, 2013.

How will the Boston marathon bombing change the United States of America? In the days that followed, as letters laced with biological toxins arrived on Capitol Hill and a fertilizer plant in Texas exploded, albeit accidentally, levelling an entire neighbourhood, it seemed as if the country was in shock, startled to discover that terrorism was more than a word heard every night on the news, more than a reason to stand in line at the airport, more than a nightmare that happens somewhere else.

In any other week, the failure of a gun control bill to pass Congress would have owned the front page. Barack Obama’s administration had pushed for a law aimed at reducing gun violence, in the belief that public opinion had shifted decisively following the Newtown school shooting, but even the weak compromise proposed by Democrats died on the floor of the Senate.

It is tempting to imagine a similar response to the carnage in Boston, in which partisan gridlock stalls legislation as the outrage slowly fades, but recent history suggests that the bombing’s legacy will be felt by everyone who lives in or visits the United States, in ways large and small. If there are two things that most congressional Democrats and Republicans can agree on, they are that the gun lobby is unbeatable and national security spending is sacrosanct.

The modern security state was born on September 11, 2001, but each subsequent attempt at a major terrorist attack has extended it. After Richard Reid attempted to bring down a plane by igniting the explosives hidden in his shoes, removing footwear became standard practice at airport security checks. After a plot to crash transatlantic flights using liquid explosives was uncovered in London, passengers were obliged to pack their toiletries in small, transparent bags.

The Christmas Day bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, sewed plastic explosives into his underpants, ushering in the current era of full body scans. He was also interrogated for hours without being read his rights, confirming that the United States Justice Department had drawn up new legal guidelines that skirted around the previously required warning, familiar to anyone who has ever watched a cop show, that a suspect has the right to remain silent and to call a lawyer, and that his answers may be used against him in court. A federal law enforcement official confirmed that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was also questioned without a lawyer present, after the wild manhunt that ended late on Friday night.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

“The reaction tends to be focused,” said John Mueller, a Professor at Ohio State University and author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. “After the underwear bomber it was focused on not having any more underwear bombers. After the shoe bomber it was focused on not having any more shoe bombers. In this case, it’s probably going to be focused on immigration issues: ‘How come these guys were allowed to get into the United States?’ There’s going to be some irrationality on that.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, agreed that the impulse to prevent a recurrence may lead to bad policy decisions being made. “There’s going to be a push. That always happens after a tragedy,” he says. “We often push for massive changes to counter-terrorism policy when there is political demand, rather than out of good strategy.”

Commentators on the right have warned that the Boston attack marks the beginning of a new, more dangerous age, in which homegrown terrorists, working alone or in disconnected groups, attack civilians wherever they meet in large numbers. “In those ugly months after 9/11, we feared there would be a ‘new normal’ for America – that no place and nobody would feel safe again,” wrote Ron Fournier, in the National Journal. “Those fears were not realised, not right away. Does the nightmare begin with Boston?”

Statistics suggest this is scare-mongering. In any given year, the chances of being killed by a terrorist attack on US soil are 1 in 3.5 million. You are more likely to be crushed by heavy furniture, ten times as likely to die cycling, twenty times as likely to die falling down the stairs, but such is terrorism’s exaggerated impact on the national psyche that in surveys, when people are asked if they are worried that they or their loved ones will be harmed by terrorists, between 35% and 40% consistently say yes.

By modern historical standards, there have been extraordinarily few successful attacks in the last ten years. In terms of sheer volume, domestic terrorism in the United States peaked between January 1969 and April 1970, when there were more than 4,000 reported bombings. This was the era of the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, anti-Castro militants in Miami, Puerto Rican separatists and the Ku Klux Klan.

In the 1990s, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, there were an average of 41 terrorist attacks per year, a number that dropped to just 16 per year in the decade after the Twin Towers were destroyed. “What’s happened is that the anxiety has become internalised,” said Mueller. “After 9/11, I would have thought that the trauma would fade. I would have expected the level of fear to go down, but it hasn’t.”

Mueller has studied every case since the September 11 attacks in which an alleged terrorist has been arrested in the United States. He said the Tsarnaev brothers fit the typical profile of amateur plotters: poorly prepared to pull off an attack without being caught and, by the standards of disciplined nationalist terrorist organisations and Al-Qaeda splinter groups, insufficiently skilled to cause maximum havoc. Three families are in mourning and scores of people must learn to live with artificial limbs, but the Boston bombing could have been much worse.

“Police will often tell you that these guys are ordinary criminals and they eventually do stupid things. Najibullah Zazi, the guy who tried to bomb the New York subway four years ago, bought hydrogen peroxide with a stolen credit card,” Mueller said. “The Tsarnaevs are amateurs. It’s really stupid to do this thing somewhere where five million people are taking pictures simultaneously.”

One group that will immediately be affected by the bombings is Muslims living in the United States, who are already three times more likely to be the victims of hate crime than other Americans. On the day of the attack, a young Saudi Arabian man with shrapnel injuries was tackled as he ran away from the scene. His flat was searched, his roommate interrogated and he was mentioned as a possible suspect in the media, apparently on the basis of his ethnicity alone, before being cleared of any involvement with the bombing. The New York Post printed a picture of two young Moroccan-American men carrying backpacks on its front page under the headline: “Bag Men. Feds seek these two pictured at Boston marathon.” Neither had anything to do with the attack. One of them, Salah Eddin Barhoum, told reporters he now fears for his life.

Muneer Awad, director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in New York, pointed out that American Muslims are already used to being questioned by police or the FBI without a warrant, a situation that is likely to worsen if it can be shown that the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by jihad or Chechen separatism. “Government agencies have cast a shadow on American Muslims, Arabs, South-Asian for over a decade now,” Awad said. “And unfortunately we see spikes in attacks on people who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim whenever the headlines tend to incite these types of reaction.”

Republicans seeking to block immigration reform have already signalled that they will use the Boston attack as an example of the dangers posed by lax border control. “Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” said Senator Chuck Grassley. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a naturalised American citizen. His older brother had a Green Card.

Because surveillance cameras played a key role in identifying the suspects, many legislators want to extend their reach. By the standards of London, the world’s most watched city with almost half a million eyes in the sky, there were comparatively few law enforcement cameras in Boston: only 55 above ground in the city centre, 92 in the suburbs and around 600 in the subway system. The key shots came from private security cameras outside shops. National security hawks will argue that a more comprehensive police surveillance network could have prevented the attack.

When the FBI released images of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Thursday, Special Agent Richard DesLauriers appealed for help with a nod to the vast crowd-sourcing effort to identify the perpetrators on social media sites. “These images should be the only ones the public should view to assist us. Other photos should not be deemed credible,” he said. This was a forlorn hope: every family snapshot, every publicly available frame of CCTV from the marathon had already been pored over by thousands of amateur sleuths, none of whom spotted the brothers carrying their heavy black bags.

At every subway station in New York, and on every train, there is a poster urging: “If you see something, say something,” with a picture of an abandoned brown paper parcel. On the day after the Boston bombing, New Yorkers took the entreaty seriously, calling in 94 reports of suspect packages. Times Square station was evacuated, as was a bank in Brooklyn Heights, due to what turned out to be a half-finished cup of coffee.

“Over the next year there will be more in the way of public vigilance, more concern about suspect packages,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “People will report them more. But unless there’s another bombing, that dims over time. The public gets alert fatigue.”

As police in Boston confirmed that they had cornered Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and taken him into custody, President Obama addressed reporters in the White House briefing room. “Whatever hateful agenda drove these men to such heinous acts will not, cannot, prevail,” he said. “They failed because the people of Boston refused to be intimidated. They failed because, as Americans, we refused to be terrorised.”

President Richard Nixon once observed that “people react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.” In the coming weeks, the politics of fear will be used to justify increased national security spending, while every other branch of government suffers cuts. The Boston attack will be cited as a reason to seal the USA’s borders, to keep immigrants out. American legislators would do well to heed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous warning that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”