America’s willingness to be terrified by terrorism

Numerous times this week, the question has been raised about whether the perpetrators of the Marathon bombing might have been inspired by Inspire — the online magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Perhaps a more pertinent question is this: in what ways might events of the last few days provide inspiration to the writers at Inspire?

Although terrorism looks like mindless violence, generally speaking it employs a ruthless logic: how is it possible to yield the maximum political effect with the minimum of resources.

Terrorism aims to upturn a power differential and make the weak look powerful and the powerful look weak. This is what gives the dramatic effect of an explosion its irresistible appeal. The explosion symbolizes the power of the bomber — at least, that’s the intention.

Whether a bombing has that effect will largely be determined by the response of the authorities and the media. In America, as has become depressingly evident, when the terrorists shout “jump”, America jumps.

Which leads to perhaps the most striking image of the week: that a nineteen-year-old fugitive, probably wounded and almost certainly out of luck, is given the power to shut down a major American city.

No doubt, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fit the description — armed and dangerous — but unfortunately, so do many other men roaming the streets of cities across America.

The truth is, the dire urgency of his capture said less about the threat he posed than it did about the massive embarrassment law enforcement would face the longer he remained on the run — especially after having already been firmly in their sights.

If it turns out that capturing him alive was preeminent among the concerns of those pursuing him, then that is commendable, since he’s probably now the only person who can explain why he and his brother carried out Monday’s bombing.

Even so, there remains an overarching lesson from these events — that the primary lesson from 9/11 remains unlearned: that worse than terrorism is an overreaction to terrorism.

As Michael Cohen notes:

Londoners, who endured IRA terror for years, might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They’re right – and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we’ve seen previously in the United States. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after 9/11 Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the “threat” of terrorism.

After all, it’s not as if this is the first time that homicidal killers have been on the loose in a major American city. In 2002, Washington DC was terrorised by two roving snipers, who randomly shot and killed 10 people. In February, a disgruntled police officer, Christopher Dorner, murdered four people over several days in Los Angeles. In neither case was LA or DC put on lockdown mode, perhaps because neither of these sprees was branded with that magically evocative and seemingly terrifying word for Americans, terrorism.

* * *

No one is born a terrorist and everyone has the capacity to engage in deadly violence. The fact that people find it so perplexing and disturbing that a kid with “a heart of gold” could have inflicted such horrific suffering on others, says as much about our lack of imagination as it says about the human capacity for brutality.

In reality, the chances are that most people either know, are related to, or have met a mass killer. But the commonplace mass killing which is rarely named as such, is not called terrorism but service to the nation.

Bombs and missiles are instruments of mass killing that have been used by Americans in, among other places, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Serbia, Grenada, Lebanon, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and Germany. Those responsible for the killing might not have focused their attention on destroying lives, while believing the ends justified means, that orders had to be followed, that “we had no choice” — none of which actually mitigates the effects.

And this leads to the basic problem with the self-righteous and ritualistic condemnations of terrorism that always follow an atrocity: these disavowals of violence come from those who in other circumstances regard violence as perfectly legitimate.

In reality, the most vociferous opponents of terrorism are those who see in it a threat to their own monopoly on violence.

* * *

While the identities of the bombers remained unknown, the question that was perhaps uppermost in most people’s minds was whether this was a case of foreign or domestic terrorism.

The domestic moment came early on Friday morning when it became known that the suspects were still in Boston, their home town.

Up until the FBI made public their images, they had made an obvious choice: stay at home and continue daily life as usual, which for Dzhokhar included attending a party two days after the bombing.

The foreign-domestic distinction is an artifice. Not only does it imply that a sharp line can be drawn separating American and non-American, but also that so-called domestic terrorism is somehow more benign. Moreover, it implies that real Americans are born here.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a U.S. citizen and his brother a legal permanent resident, yet the fact that they carried out their attack in their home town will not in the eyes of many, be sufficient reason to call this domestic terrorism. It seems that once a foreigner, always a foreigner — whatever ones citizenship.

* * *

Senator Charles E. Grassley says, “Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” meaning what?

Children entering the United States as immigrants should now be screened in order to assess the chances that they might become terrorists? What kind of warning signs might be observed in a nine-year-old indicating that a decade later he might turn to making bombs?

When it comes to the game of spot the future terrorist, the FBI showed how difficult that is when they interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. Even with access to the U.S. government’s vast databases the FBI found nothing. Some take this to mean that they didn’t look hard enough. In truth, what this reveals is that there is a huge difference between evidence and conjecture.

Law enforcement should not be in the business of manufacturing or magnifying mere suspicions.

* * *

“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will not hear his Miranda rights before the FBI questions him Friday night. He will have to remember on his own that he has a right to a lawyer, and that anything he says can be used against him in court, because the government won’t tell him. This is an extension of a rule the Justice Department wrote for the FBI — without the oversight of any court — called the ‘public safety exception.'”

There seems to be a widening attitude, especially among Republicans, that Constitutional rights are a privilege.

Jeffrey Dahmer, other mass murderers, and members of organized crime have all been read their Miranda rights. What makes Tsarnaev more dangerous than any of them?

Who gets served by treating every terrorist as though he was ten feet tall?

* * *

For over a decade, Americans have been told that terrorism poses a threat that cannot be addressed by the existing legal system; that a new domain of law must be constructed to handle this new threat.

What has actually been created is a new domain of pseudo-law where the roles of law making, law enforcement, and judiciary, are role into a single political authority.

Even if there has been no coup d’etat, nor extended imposition of martial law, this is nonetheless the dawning of an insidious and piecemeal form of fascism.

It does not impose itself with an iron fist but grows upon us slowly, so that painlessly freedom can be lost as it is gradually forgotten.

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4 thoughts on “America’s willingness to be terrified by terrorism

  1. urdog

    Very thoughtful piece, thank you. I’ve been waiting for someone to comment sensibly on the spectacle we witnessed this week in Boston. My only “quibble” is that perhaps it is justified to suspend Miranda rights for a short period of time in the event that the captured prisoner may know of other hidden explosives hanging around. I realize that is a slippery slope. Thus the suspension should only permit questions relating to imminent dangers. Are there other backpacks? After repeating that question for an hour or two, Miranda should be recited.

  2. delia ruhe

    Osama must have died a happy man. He got to watch the US overreact to 9/11 and then lurch from crisis to catastrophe as it slid down the slippery slope of decline.

  3. rosemerry

    I am surprised at your comment “since he’s probably now the only person who can explain why he and his brother carried out Monday’s bombing.” assumes that the suspect is guilty, as bin Laden has been assumed guilty of “9/11” despite FBI assurances that there was not enough evidence to indict him.
    The rule of law means little in the Homeland.

  4. Giovanna

    not one person has suggested that the tsarnaev brothers might be mentally ill (i’m not suggesting it either). that is reserved for american-born folks shooting up places; foreign-born folks bombing up places are terrorists (terrorists are never, for some reason, mentally ill, so the mental illness discourse doesn’t even come up). i wonder how we should denominate foreign-born folks shooting up places. we already know that american-born folks bombing up places are “domestic terrorists.” how convenient to have a quick label in which to box these violent people, without a second thought.

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