Scott Atran writes: “Americans refuse to be terrorized,” declared President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. “Ultimately, that’s what we’ll remember from this week.” Believe that, and I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.
The Boston bombings have provoked the most intense display of law enforcement and media coverage since the 9/11 attacks. Greater Boston was in full lockdown: “a ghost town,” “a city in terror,” “a war zone,” screamed the headlines. Public transit was stopped, a no-fly zone proclaimed, people told to stay indoors, schools and universities closed, and hundreds of FBI agents pulled from other pressing investigations to focus exclusively on the case — along with thousands upon thousands of other federal, state, and city agents equipped with heavy weapons and armored vehicles. It all came close to martial law, with all the tools of the security state mobilized to track down a pair of young immigrants with low-tech explosives and small arms who failed to reconcile their problems of identity and became suspected amateur terrorists.
Not that the events weren’t shocking and brutal. But this law enforcement and media response, of course, is part of the overall U.S. reaction to terrorism since 9/11, when perhaps never in history have so few, armed with so few means, caused so much fear in so many. Indeed, as with the anarchists a century ago, last week’s response is precisely the outsized reaction that sponsors of terrorism have always counted on in order to terrorize.
Nothing compares to the grief of parents whose child has been murdered like 8-year-old Martin Richard, except perhaps the collective grief of many parents, as for the 20 children killed in last December’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Yet, despite the fact that the probability of a child, or anyone else in the United States, being killed by a terrorist bomb is vastly smaller than being killed by an unregistered handgun — or even by an unregulated fertilizer plant — U.S. politicians and the public seem likely to continue to support uncritically the extravagant measures associated with an irrational policy of “zero tolerance” for terrorism, as opposed to much-more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence. Given the millions of dollars already spent on the Boston bombing investigation and the trillions that the national response to terrorism has cost in little more than a decade, the public deserves a more reasoned response. We can never, ever be absolutely safe, no matter how much treasure we spend or how many civil liberties we sacrifice. [Continue reading…]