Terrorism in Boston

There’s not much we can say about the bombing of the Boston Marathon. There are, however, a number of lessons we can draw from the responses to the attack. Like the violence itself, none of them is pretty.


President Obama in his initial response neglected to call the bombing terrorism. This was not an oversight on his part, and a day later pressure from the right forced the President to express that yes, the Boston attack was an act of terror.

Obama’s goal in not using “terror” as a descriptor was that he wanted to prevent people from jumping “to conclusions before we have all the facts.” With the historic precedent of targeting Muslims and south Asians in the wake of 9/11, it seems clear that Obama was trying to prevent a racist backlash against innocent people. Given the treatment of the one Saudi national present, also a victim of the bombing, the attempt to calm racist knee-jerk reactions is reasonable.

Laudable though his goal was, implicit in Obama’s use of the term is that terrorism can only be committed by Muslim people. Based solely on the facts, the Boston bombing, an act of political violence directed against innocent people, is terrorism. Yet in the language of Washington, terrorism has such a warped meaning that it can’t even be identified unless we know it was a Muslim person who did it.

The trouble with defining terrorism was replayed the following day, when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked point-blank whether a US drone strike that killed 11 children a few days earlier is “a form of terrorism.” The rambling and incoherent response from Carney, his struggle to find the definition of terror and defend US actions, is a pristine example of Orwell’s notion of “doublethink” in action. For Obama, Carney and the Washington establishment, terror is only something they – the Muslims, radicals, our enemies – do to us. When the events of history and reality unfold before their eyes, those in power struggle to incorporate them into their Orwellian framework, stumbling as they do, with facts as plain as the nose on their face.

Worsening Situation for Civil Liberties

The terror attacks in Boston are horrible on their own. The large number of victims, the child who has been killed, make one’s heart sink. But the reaction in the US will only make things worse.

The level of state surveillance, already violating longstanding principles and legally protected rights, will get much worse. The New York Times has reported that law enforcement is extensively using social media to investigate the attack. And the focus of the political discourse coming from Washington is already shifting to greater powers for the security state. Just at a moment when social justice values and agendas, as they relate to Guantanamo, drones and other issues were beginning to favor a socially progressive opening, these small victories will be rolled back as the discourse of security will gain new salience.

Additionally, minorities and political activists of all types can expect more profiling and harassment from police agencies. This is certainly true for Muslims in the US but also for social justice organizers, especially those with radical ideas – socialists, anarchists and others.

Double Standard

But there’s a bigger lesson for us from the attacks. The popular reaction to the terrorist attack in Boston is, in many ways, heart-warming. Virtually the entire US political establishment has mobilized in some way to condemn this wanton act of violence. Nearly every newspaper in the nation dedicated its front page to this story and even sports channels interrupted their normal broadcasting to cover the developments. Most encouraging of all, however, has been the response of average Americans, who have reacted with sadness, moral outrage, and cross-country solidarity. To an outside observer, the US might appear as an exceptionally civilized and moral country; one that is able to disregard political, religious and cultural differences and unite in its opposition to violence and support for the value of human lives.

Unfortunately, such an observer will immediately be disappointed when she realizes the deafening silence within the US regarding its own terrorism. How can we understand the discrepancy between the public reaction to the murder of three Americans with the nonexistent reaction to the murder of countless Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis?

In 2006, epidemiologists from the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health found that from 2003 to 2006, 654,965 Iraqis had been killed as a result of the US-led war. Other sources put the figure above one million. Not only did the US murder Iraqis but we also poisoned them. The depleted uranium in US bullets coated Iraq with a thin layer of low-level radioactive dust that will sicken Iraqis for years. The University of Michigan’s department of obstetrics and gynecology studied 56 families in Fallujah between 2007 and 2010 and found that over half of babies born had birth defects, e.g., missing limbs, heart defects, brain defects and so on. Prior to 2000, the birth defect rate was under 2 percent.

Unfortunately, the Iraq war is not an exception. US global terrorism predates 2003 and continues today with Obama’s illegal drone war that has left thousands dead. Last year’s important NYU/Stanford report entitled “Living Under Drones” exposed this murderous policy. The ominous prospect of death by drone “terrorizes men, women, and children” in Pakistan, the report says. The study details the use of “secondary strikes” or “double taps” – drone attacks on rescuers that come to aid the original drone victim. The US has even targeted funeral processions of drone victims, discouraging family members from attending.

US global terrorism can continue only because of the silence of average Americans – the same people who now mourn the violence in Boston. If we are to take morals seriously, we should not only mourn the victims in Boston but we should appreciate the amount of blood that’s on our hands as taxpayers and complacent observers of years of state-sanctioned murder. And crucially, we should do something about it.