5 Very Hard Lessons Americans Must Learn From the Boston Marathon Bombing


As anyone who follows the news now knows, the conclusion of the annual Boston Marathon was marred yesterday by what authorities now confirm was an act of terrorism. This act consisted of two separate bomb-induced explosions that at last count resulted in at least three confirmed deaths and some 144 wounded. It was later reported that two other unexploded devices were safely retrieved by law enforcement officials.

At the risk of sounding somewhat callous I do not believe this story, given the quality of some the earlier reporting as well as the excessive sentimentality being expressed by those in our governing class, should be subjected to more than a handful of news-cycles. While undoubtedly sincere, many of these sentiments reflect a sloppy and even jingoistic way of thinking on the part of the public. Unfortunately, the American media has had a hand in perpetuating this sloppiness of thought. Continued coverage of this terrorist attack will, I believe, only serve to muddle the public’s already shallow understanding of this and other events like it going forward.

This sloppiness of thought can be mitigated when Americans come to terms with five hard truths regarding terrorist acts such as those witnessed yesterday in Boston.

1. We should not be so surprised.

Given our immediate post-9/11 foreign policy, we should be grateful that we have not had more of these attacks sooner. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the U.S. has foiled some 50 terrorist plots since 9/11. Barring a departure from our interventionist foreign policy, particularly in the Islamic world, these events will become more frequent.

2. We should ditch the habit of sentimentalizing every terrorist act.  

While I do think a degree of national solidarity is healthy for the body politic, this habit of infusing every terrorist attack with a hyper-sentimentalist meaning can get old real quick (especially if such attacks become more frequent). Contrary to some claims made recently, this was not an attack on “the world” but on a specific country with specific policies that may, from time to time, invite the ire of people who oppose those specific policies. 

3. Terrorism is not cowardly or senseless but highly rational and strategic.

What most people fail to grasp about terrorism is that a terrorist act is about theatrics as much as it is about compiling a high body count (although the latter would undoubtedly enhance the former). Rather than being led by a senseless homicidal hatred, terrorists seek to use violence, particularly those of the spectacular variety, to achieve concrete political objectives. While the means they employ are morally dubious at best, their concrete political objectives are often reasonable if not morally agreeable.       

4. Terrorism poses no real threat to national security.

Absent the acquiring of a nuclear weapon, no terrorist or terrorist organization can even remotely threaten the American way of life without the consent of Americans and their government. This is not to say that they cannot inflict harm, even great harm, as the 9/11 attacks showed. Then again 9/11 was the exception and not the rule.

5. Terrorism is a problem that can be managed, not eliminated.

While politicians may say “never again” when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks, such promises are illusory at best. In addition, any attempt to redirect blame of a given terror attack on the failure of the nation’s intelligence services is the equivalent of blaming the local police for not preventing a local crime. The tendency for our governing class to scapegoat our public servants for not being omniscient is real. The only way to truly stamp out terrorism, along with other social ills such as crime, is to embrace a totalitarian state.

Barring such a ghastly exchange, the specter of terrorism can be effectively reduced by promoting a healthy civil society at home and a non-interventionist foreign policy abroad. Additional measures would also include sound police work, timely intelligence gathering, pro-active diplomacy, and when necessary well-defined military action.