Speculating about the Boston bombings

During the first hour after the atrocity in Boston, journalists and others were quick to exercise what I would call zealous caution: don’t talk about bombs — all we know is that these were explosions.

Sure, we didn’t know. But anyone could reasonably talk about what appeared to be explosions caused by bombs.

I understand the reason for the caution. Speculation itself is combustible and we all know in which direction the speculation would immediately run: towards the Middle East, Muslims and global terrorism.

But it’s not actually speculation that’s the problem — it’s knee-jerk reactions which are not speculative. On the contrary, they are the unreflective act of jumping to conclusions.

Speculation, on the other hand, means exercising the imagination while piecing together existing information and seeing what kinds of reasonable inferences might be drawn.

Professional investigators will already be doing this. They will not restrict themselves purely to the gathering of evidence since the pursuit of such information does itself require fanning out in multiple speculative directions looking for new clues to determine who did this and why.

A Wall Street Journal report begins:

Two deadly explosions ripped through a crowd at the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing at least two people and injuring more than 110, once again raising the specter of terrorism on American soil.

“The specter of terrorism on American soil” is the cliched language that journalists can produce while asleep, but it also comes loaded with symbolism — that of American being attacked from the outside and a sense that this could have happened anywhere in America and thus this was an attack on America.

In 1995, straight after the Oklahoma bombing, the media was quick to push the foreign angle.

Within hours of the bombing, most network news reports featured comments from experts on Middle Eastern terrorism who said the blast was similar to the World Trade Center explosion two years earlier. Newspapers relied on many of those same experts and stressed the possibility of a Middle East connection.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, called it a “Beirut-style car bombing” in the first sentence of its story. The New York Post quoted Israeli terrorism experts in its opening paragraph, saying the explosion “mimicked three recent attacks on targets abroad.”

“We were, as usual, following the lead of public officials, assuming that public officials are telling us the truth,” says John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine and author of a book on coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He believes the media overemphasized the possible Middle Eastern link and ignored domestic suspects because initially the police were not giving that angle much thought.

“Reporters can’t think without a cop telling them what to think,” MacArthur says. “If you are going to speculate wildly, why not say this is the anniversary of the Waco siege? Why isn’t that as plausible as bearded Arabs fleeing the scene?”

Most news organizations did mention other possible culprits. They noted the bombing took place on the second anniversary of the government raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, suggesting that homegrown terrorists might be responsible. But that angle was buried in most stories.

This Friday marks the tenth anniversary of Waco.

That coincidence, along with a number of other details (such as Monday being Patriots’ Day and Tax Day) give the Boston bombings at least the aroma of terrorism made in America.

Terrorism by its nature always appears misanthropic, yet its political significance and symbolism can be more or less explicit. The 9/11 attacks left few in doubt that these were conceived as attacks on America, yet domestic terrorism often seems to have a more introverted character.

Eric Rudolph‘s Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996 was his attempt to stand up against “the ideals of global socialism.”

Timothy McVeigh suggested that he was highlighting American hypocrisy: “Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the U.S. military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City.”

Meanwhile, as it did in 1995 after the Oklahoma bombing, the Wall Street Journal is fixing its attention on a foreign threat:

The Boston bombing is above all a reminder of the continuing need for heightened defenses against terror threats. As the years since 9/11 without a successful homeland attack increased, the temptation was to forget how vulnerable the U.S. is, and to conclude that the worst is over.

In particular an anti-antiterror media and legal industry has developed in recent years claiming that police tactics like pre-emptive surveillance are no longer necessary. Al Qaeda is all but defeated, they say, so we can relax. But as New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly points out, the NYPD has helped to foil 16 plots against the city. Many of them involved homegrown terrorists like Shahzad, who often won’t be detected without surveillance or informants in communities that might produce killers.

Boston shows that the terror threat continues to be real, and that the price of even a peaceful marathon is constant vigilance.

As it invokes fear of “communities that might produce killers,” the Journal‘s Islamophobia is transparent.

For some Americans, constant vigilance against the terror threat meant supporting a war in Iraq, yet Saddam Hussein’s connection to Al Qaeda was a neoconservative fabrication. Anyone who still imagines that war did anything to make America safer is delusional.

On the other hand, there has always been a danger that the war would create its own Timothy McVeigh: someone embittered by the price the military has paid while the rest of America, untouched by the effects of war, has enjoyed the freedom to work and play — as though living in a nation that shares equally the rewards of peace.

Intelligent speculation about what happened yesterday is a good thing if for no other reason than that it lubricates minds that might otherwise form rigid views, but ultimately the biggest challenge for those called on to proffer expert opinion is to underline how little they know.

The search for swift answers, more than anything else, reflects the need we all have to live in a predictable world — a world in which we do not remain hypervigilant, grasped by an ever-present fear that violence might suddenly be unleashed from any direction.

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One thought on “Speculating about the Boston bombings

  1. Norman

    All things considered, I’m afraid that the “FEAR” factor created by our own fearless leader[s] and seemingly fed to us on a continual basis, lest we forget and become complacent, {again}, so the war mongering doesn’t lose its bite. As for the media, well, aren’t they pretty much of the same bent, “we are at war with terrorists who live in the M.E. Therefore, they must be Arab.

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