The tragedy this week in Boston, where homemade bombs ripped through a crowd watching the Marathon, is appalling: 3 confirmed dead so far, over a hundred wounded and dozens in critical condition. What can we learn about this attack? Is it preventable? Are we any less safe?
Despite Monday’s tragedy, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Americans are safer now than we have been in recent memory. Violent crime has dropped steadily for the past five years. Hate crimes are at their lowest level since 1994. Over the last decade acts of terrorism in this country have declined remarkably, and have been declining since 1970. The risk of catastrophic war is lower than ever, and when wars do happen they kill fewer people than ever before.
One reason for this dramatic increase in public safety is the astonishing growth of the national security state over the last decade. While there is a steep downside to such growth – eroding civil liberties, secret law breaking, and so on – the upside is that public safety is better than it’s been in a very long time.
Compare the day the bombings happened in Boston to that day in Iraq: a series of 20 bombs exploded across Iraq, killing at least 37 people. Iraq is a truly insecure country where civilian deaths from terrorism have been growing steadily – several hundred die each month there in terrorist attacks.
This of course doesn’t minimize the tragedy in Boston. In many ways, smaller acts of terror in stable, secure, safe communities is far more shocking than carnage in an unstable, insecure community. News coverage reflects this, since few barely ran more than a single story on the dozens killed by bombs in Iraq.
From what we do know the bomb was assembled out of seemingly simple components: a pressure cooker, some nails, and a timing device. As Adam Weinstein explains for Gawker, such devices are relatively easy to build. Such devices are also common in insurgencies around the world and could have come from anywhere.
But don’t panic yet.
We don’t so much about what happened, about who did it, or why. And that vacuum of knowledge can be incredibly dangerous. Without understanding who detonated those bombs, or why, we cannot possibly know what an appropriate response would be. Like the silliness of making people take off their shoes at the airport, the response could easily be more wasteful theater than sober threat response.
Terrorists commit violence not just to make point or to lash out, but to provoke a reaction. One of al Qaeda’s goals in striking against the U.S. was to provoke a massive overreaction: Osama bin Laden thought the Soviet Union fell because of its disastrous war in Afghanistan, and wanted to tempt the U.S. into a similar overreach.
So far, the profile of the attack in Boston resembles the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996. There, a bomb exploded during a late music concert, killing two and injuring 111. In the immediate aftermath, security guard Richard Jewell was mistakenly named in the media as a suspect in the bombing. After the FBI cleared him of any wrongdoing, Jewell sued several news organizations for libel, winning multiple settlements along the way. Eventually, the bombing was tied not to Jewell, or white militias as many had thought in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, or even the Islamist extremists, but to anti-abortion and anti-gay zealot named Eric Randolph.
One man questioned about the Boston bombing bears an eerie similarity; some news organizations focused early on his nationality (Saudi Arabia), hinting darkly that this made him suspicious. This account was correct by another news agency who reported he was merely a witness, questioned about what he saw.
So what can the rest of us do while law enforcement figures out what happened? First and foremost, we can try to avoid needless speculation. Until we know who did it, what their motive was and how likely a similar attack might be in the future, there’s no purpose to the endless rounds of empty guesswork currently cluttering the airwaves and endless Twitter debates.
But more importantly, we can also maintain some perspective. Despite the horror of Monday’s violence, we are lucky to live in a country where such incidents are incredibly rare. It is unreasonable to expect the government to be able to stop every single attack that might possibly happen, but we are lucky that it can stop as many as it does – and we have all reaped the benefits of that.