Before the Boston bombings, minds’ eye terrorism was defined by previous experience. Hijacked planes flying into buildings. Foreign terrorist networks hatching plots in distant lands, executed by ruthless operatives who eluded security. Countless innocents dead or wounded.
But while memories are fixed, the circumstances of tomorrow are fluid.
Boston represents something new.
We know that because there is no glaring or obvious fix that would have prevented the tragedy.
Set up a guarded perimeter around the 26 mile route? Metal detectors and bag checks at fixed entry points? What’s next, the St. Patrick’s Day parade? There is an inherent limit on how much security a free people will tolerate, or that is logistically feasible.
Improve our immigration system and its checks on documented aliens? There is always room for improvement. But the Russian warning on Bomber #1, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, came a year before his apparent radicalization in a six-month trip to Dagastan. Moreover, the FBI apparently did follow-up on the Russian request for a check, and found nothing to indicate a problem. Indeed the second brother was a naturalized American citizen.
We are left to decipher the gap left between Russian suspicions and lack of supporting physical evidence as determined by the FBI. Unlike 9-11, we did connect the dots – but we did not find anything actionable at the time.
What about new controls on the materials used to construct the bombs used in Boston? Are we now going to require background checks pressure cookers, ball bearings and BBs?
Vigilance is the common denominator in success against terror, but it rides on the ebbs and flows of complacency, which grows in tandem with the length of time between successful attacks.
A free society expects to move, without hinderance and delay by authorities. Indeed, protecting a free society from terrorism is a balancing act that defies perfection due to the contradictory requirements of the premise. Boston is sad confirmation that no defense against terrorism can be 100 percent in every place and at every time.
On the positive side, the aftermath of the attack in Boston proved the worth of our national investments a counter-terrorism architecture. Once the attack had occurred, Federal, state and local authorities worked together seamlessly. First responders secured the crime scene and effectively managed nearly 200 casualties, many in critical condition.
Authorities were able to quickly assemble and deploy tactical units of overwhelming power, which were able to engage the terrorists and protect the citizenry.
The contrast with pre 9-11 activity is striking. As the Washington Post noted on April 20th, ”…after a bomb exploded at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, it was not until months later, and more bomb attacks, that perpetrator,Eric Rudolph was identified, and not until 2003 that he was apprehended.”
In Boston, the security apparatus had the bombers identified in less than 48 hours. and ended the crisis with the capture of Dzokhar Tsarnaev in a little more than 100 hours, from the time of the blasts.
This reflects, in part, what we have learned, built and practiced in the last decade.
But Boston did change the terror paradigm for the US in a manner that does not lend itself to immediate or tangible solution. At its core, the Boston attacks expose the limits and durable challenges of assimilation amid globalization.
The Tsarnaevs came to America as refugees. The Wall Street Journal reported that the family lived on government assistance for some period of time. The future terrorists excelled in sports and took advantage of educational opportunities. The older Tsarnaev married and started a family. Both brothers sought US citizenship, with the younger Tsarnaev having become an American only seven months ago – September 11, 2012.
Yet, despite all these opportunities/accomplishments, at least the elder Tamerlan was sufficiently alienated from US society that he claimed not to have a single American friend. Culturally adrift, the older Tsarnaev sought identify and authenticity in the radicalized religious politics of a half remembered homeland.
Syndicated columnist, Anne Applebaum captured the disconnect in a recent column saying, “The behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers looks less like that of hardened, trained terrorists and far more closely resembles the second-generation European Muslims who staged bombings in Madrid, London and other European cities.”
In our globalized age of (relatively) inexpensive air travel and instant digital connection, social discontent now has a home outside the famous American “melting pot.” Our collective conceit, that as a nation of immigrants, the US is better at assimilation than other sovereigns that trace nationality to blood lines, may no longer be true.
The new reality – represented in Fort Hood terrorist Nidal Hassan to Boston’s Tsarnaevs, have real consequences for US domestic security. It is not simply a matter of immigration per se (though that will certainly be a debated issue) but more fundamentally, what it means to be an American.
These are the issues the nation will be struggling with in the weeks and months ahead, as we determine who may have been behind the Tsarnaev religious radicalization, and whether more familiar names emerge in the network of terror.
A personal, closing thought.
I woke up Saturday suffused in a “say it out loud moment.”
I’m proud to be an American, dammit.
We live in a time of toxic political polarization and suffocating political correctness. Anything you say can and will be used against you from the grocery check out line to all the available media platforms. We are a 50-50 nation that does not agree on anything – until something like Boston occurs.
Marathoners running to the blast to help the wounded. First responders savings lives. Citizens calling in tips and providing photo and video feed to authorities. The greviously wounded spectator who, still groggy from a double amputation, asked for pen and pad to say he had seen the Suspect #1 face to face. With almost no warning, the authorities effectively closed down the whole city, asking one million people to shelter in place – and they did. It was unprecedented.
Rivalries and biases dissolved. We became part of Red Sox Nation. Boston, the east coast epicenter of uber-liberalism, was awash in the sudden love and affection of their fellow Americans of every political stripe. President Obama was measured and serious, his words spoke to the hopes and aspirations not only of those in Boston, but to all Americans.
We were filled with anger at the attack, with concern and compassion for our fellow citizens – grieving, wounded or at risk – and with a national determination to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
And we did.
The days and weeks ahead will be filled with challenges, from authorities reconstructing the plot to families reconstructing lives. The absence of crisis will bring back familiar divisions and fault lines.
But in a moment that required it, we showed the best part of ourselves – reflexively – in a manner that defines our national character.
Amid tragedy, it was a timely reminder of what we all have in common, and that was good.