My two children live in Boston. On the weekend that the city was shut down in the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsernaev, I was visiting them. Now that he has been caught, we can think about the national implications of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.
The Tsernaev brothers planned to do a lot of damage to American people and structures. Remarkable work by the people of our public services limited that damage. The first responders to the bombing and the hospital staffs across Boston saved every wounded person who came to them, limiting the death toll to three. Intensive police and FBI investigative work identified the bombers within a few days. Then an extraordinary manhunt prevented them from leaving the Boston area, despite their plans to explode bombs in New York City. After the brothers killed an MIT policeman, one was killed and the other captured without any other deaths of civilians or police.
Technology played a significant role in those successes. Surveillance videos and infrared cameras on helicopters made the identification and location of the bombers possible. The police were able to track the car they hijacked because its owner had left his cellphone inside when he escaped.
On the other hand, some of the TV reporting during the manhunt was comically incompetent. When it was discovered that Dzhokhar Tsernaev was a student at a University of Massachusetts branch campus in Dartmouth, MA, the reporter on the station I was watching first said that the campus of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire was being evacuated, then changed that to the main UMass campus in Amherst. Later I heard an NPR “timeline” of what had happened that was riddled with errors.
But the lockdown worked well. Hundreds of police were able to isolate Tsernaev in one part of Boston and hunt him down. Bostonians cooperated completely. Still it is worth asking, was this an overreaction? Should a large metropolitan area of nearly a million people be shut down in order to search for a single criminal?
If he had killed a family of 5, as did a man in Manchester, IL, just a few miles from where I live, there would have been no lockdown. If Adam Lanza had managed to leave Sandy Hook Elementary School and drive towards New York, an hour away, would that city have been shut down? Under what circumstances should our government close down a city? If the perpetrators were not born in the US? If they hate America, not just their neighbors? If they have bombs?
Business Week estimated that a lost day might cost Boston over $300 million. Will the lockdown precedent encourage perpetrators to copy the Boston bombers?
The bombers appear to have been motivated by a crazy version of Islam which encouraged them to kill Americans. One response has been the proliferation of equally crazy ideas about the American government attacking its own citizens.
A brief journey (I couldn’t stand any more) through the thousands of blog entries about the Boston bombing reveals a wide variety of people who have leaped to the conclusion that the bombing was done by our own government. It is not surprising that the brothers’ parents, now in Dagestan in Russia, claim their boys are the innocent victims of a “false flag” “black ops” American conspiracy. But what about all the media talkers, like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, and nutty politicians, like Republican New Hampshire state Rep. Stella Tremblay, who fuel these fantasies?
Last Friday Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert said on the radio that the Obama administration “has so many Muslim brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America.” The day before, Republicans Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jason Chaffetz of Utah held a hearing “to examine the procurement of ammunition by the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General.” Benjamin Radford, in his Bad Science column, explains, “Conspiracy theorists prefer complex mysteries over simple truths, and so they find mystery where none exists.”
It’s no wonder that some people come to amazing conclusions, like the anonymous commenter on Alex Jones’ site, who is sure there is “a conspiracy of aliens and humans that has been conducting secret mind altering experiments on citizens. They have planted the images of a ‘bombing’ in our heads when in fact, no bombing actually occurred.” No moon landing occurred either, and no plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.
The Boston Marathon bombing demonstrates that it is very difficult to get away with such a terrorist attack. But it may also show that it is not difficult to perpetrate such a murderous act in a crowded urban place, and thus to create enormous havoc. Some of that havoc is amplified by ambitious people with selfish motives.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 30, 2013