Thoughts on Terror

Like everyone else, I’m relieved normalcy has been restored in Boston. I’m glad the bombers are no longer on the loose, and I’m glad my Boston friends don’t need to be in fear anymore. But yesterday, as I watched the images of crowds waving American flags and cheering police officers, I realized I actually had the opposite reaction: I find nothing to cheer about, and to me it seems disheartening that the whole of Boston needed to be locked down to capture an injured 19-year-old who was hiding in a boat in someone's backyard.

Last Friday, when the younger of the two brothers, Dzhokhar, was still on the run, I emailed with a friend in Boston whose wife had been the boy’s teacher. She was stunned because he had seemed to be a good kid. I responded I wasn’t too surprised, that seemingly regular teenagers, out of the blue, can sometimes do terrible things (as can adults). Afterwards I worried my friend would think my response had been too casual.

I hadn’t meant to diminish the seriousness of the attack. On the contrary, an atrocity committed by a regular teenager seems to me almost more terrifying than an attack carried out by a well-funded international terrorist network. It may be more reassuring to imagine this story as a confrontation between heroic American security forces and a devious terrorist network out to destroy western civilization than as a story of two disgruntled young men who didn’t seem particularly sophisticated in their planning. We’re familiar with the first scenario from action movies: we all know that in the end the heroic cops will annihilate the terrorists, peace and order will be restored, and the patriotic heroes will be celebrated. This is a much more manageable scenario than trying to restrain disgruntled young men from joining online hate-communities and consulting the internet to learn how to make bombs or buy guns so they can vent their dissatisfaction by killing people.

I don't think there’s so much difference between the Boston-Marathon bombing and other American massacres such as Sandy Hook, the Colorado shooting, Virginia Tech, the DC sniper shootings, or the Oklahoma bombing. Yes, these killers were Muslim immigrants who used extremist Islamic ideology to justify their warped violence. But the bombs could have been placed by any discontented, violent person with access to the Internet.

It is so easy to kill these days. Finding instructions on how to make your own bombs is not much more difficult than locating an apple-pie recipe, and if a disgruntled person with a violent streak is in search of an ideology to fuel their rage, forums catering to every kind of maliciousness are just a click away.

But, wait… As I am complaining here about the threat of violence and the lack of safety in the U.S., I catch myself at my own double standard: In much of the world, it is a given that you can be killed or hurt anytime. Do privileged Americans and privileged people in other countries have more of a right to feel safe than others? Is it less of an outrage when people are killed elsewhere? Just this month, there have been several massacres at a much larger-scale than the one in Boston. Hundreds of people have died in bombings in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia in the past two weeks. In fact, on the same day as the Boston attack, a series of bombs in markets, train stations, and other public places across Iraq killed 75 people and wounded many, many more. But this has probably escaped the notice of most people in the U.S. and Europe: the headlines were already taken up with reports on Boston. 

I have no answers.