After 11+ years without an attack (barring several near misses, and perhaps controversially not including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting), yesterday’s carnage at the Boston Marathon is a tragic reminder of our civilian population’s vulnerability to terrorism. I briefly lived in Boston (okay, Medford, but it was on the Red Line) after college. While I can’t say I cared much for the weather or the freeways, I thought it was a great town, especially for American history buffs and higher education addicts. And when it comes to looking a threat straight in the eye and telling it to EFF OFF OUTTA HEAH, Bostonians are rivaled only by New Yorkers, who are their rivals in everything.
Maybe this is because it’s still early days, or because the scale of the strike hardly compares–or simply because I haven’t had much time to check which brands of hysterical nonsense the network news has been peddling–but I’ve noticed a major tonal difference in the coverage of, and reactions to, the attacks this time around. Basically, September 11th scared us senseless. Boston has deeply saddened us and reminded us that the world can be a terrible place, but I don’t think we’re scared.
The bombers didn’t succeed in terrifying us. We’re reacting deliberately, not irrationally. People are going about their business. The stock market went down somewhat but it was heading that direction anyway. The rhetoric coming out of Washington is, with a few exceptions, level-headed, responsible and mature. The media, at least on the web, seems to be tamping down on irresponsible rumors and innuendo. We’re all waiting for the facts to come out.
And that is where we can find some solace in the heart of this disaster. It may take time, but we’re going to find out exactly what happened in Boston, and that means that the people responsible for it are on borrowed time. When we place our faith in judicial procedure and the rule of law, allowing the state to do what it does best, the vast majority of the world stands with us. If we treat terrorists as the criminals they are, instead of making them an unknowable, unbeatable existential threat, they lose power over us.
Another small point about terrorism in America: one could argue that we have actually endured multiple mass-casualty terrorist attacks since September 11th, most of which were perpetrated by lone gunmen. Definitionally, terrorists are supposed to be working towards some political motive, and these mass shootings don’t fit that bill. On the other hand, if you examine some of the demands of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, they are as impossibly maximalist as Jared Loughner’s desire to end the government’s grammar-based mind control program. In any event, maybe we’ve been somewhat inured to the idea of essentially random mass carnage since we have been exposed to it so regularly in recent years.