In the “finally, someone talking some sense” column, please mark this article from the New Yorker by John Cassidy.
There are several important ways to put what happened in Boston a bit more in context, all of which are covered in this article.
The first is that terrorism in North America is, no matter what people may be feeling right now, still a small-scale phenomenon. This is partially because some of the big worldwide terrorist organisations that exist have been seriously damaged, to the point where they are not the threat they used to be. (I’m sure a certain segment of my associates would like to sidestep this point, since it implies that Obama’s drone attacks, and maybe even – gasp – some of what Bush did, may actually be accomplishing something.) This is also partially due to the fact that many terrorist plots are busted well before they come to fruition. (We actually appear to have an example of this up here in Canada – the RCMP just arrested a group, apparently connected to al-Qaeda’s branch in Iran, that was planning an attack on Via Rail trains.) The attacks, when they do happen, can be devastating. Still, we forget about the larger number of foiled attacks, and we utterly lose sight of the large number of things that kill far more people in North America than terrorism. I will, of course, mention guns at this point, as gun policies in the US kill an inordinately large number of people…but I certainly don’t have to stop there. Another big killer is cars. We lose millions to car accidents and barely bat an eye. (We have a newspaper columnist here in Ottawa, Dan Gardner, who has noted often how many more people traffic kills in North America than terrorists – his point is that terrorism doesn’t really happen enough for us to have the disproportionate fear of it that we do. I have the opposite view. Terrorism is worrisome – and the fact that cars cause more deaths indicate to me that we really should do something about cars.)
The second point is that terrorism is declining, worldwide. Though the firebag left likes to make it sound like Western (and particularly US) actions are causing terrorism to spiral out of control, the data suggests otherwise. In Iraq, the number of attacks is coming down by a few orders of magnitude as well, mostly because the troops have come home, so there is no longer any “Westerners out” justification for them. Now it’s just Iraqis killing other Iraqis.
The third point follows, thus, pretty closely – more than half of terrorist attacks worldwide are directed by Sunni Muslim extremists. Read that again, folks – more than half, and that’s just the Sunnis. Throw the Shi’a Muslims in there as well and you have a pretty clear indication that world Islam has some housecleaning to do, and people are not just finding a convenient scapegoat. This is a point made all the more clear by the fact that the majority of the victims of Muslim terrorist groups are also Muslims. Of course, the other part of that story is that Muslims are, indeed, the victims of their co-religionists, and we need to be speaking up for the victimised Muslims by standing with them to change how things work in their part of the world.
The fourth point is that we can’t assume that terrorism truly is a part of any broader geopolitical agenda. For example, the Boston terrorists may well have been just two disaffected Muslim religious extremists who also happened to be Chechens. There is little to indicate at this point that they were sent here to do a job on the Americans by Chechen independence fighters, because frankly, that explanation wouldn’t make any sense. During the Chechen Wars, the American presidents at the time (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) both opposed the actions of the Russian military in Chechnya. It would make little sense to piss off a superpower country that was, actually, kind of tactically supporting your efforts against the Russians. Anyway, if that’s the case, then treating the Boston killers as individual criminals easily handled by the nation’s court systems, instead of a worldwide conspiracy requiring the military’s involvement, might actually be the best solution. At this point, barring any evidence of a real link to an outside group, it seems that’s what they were.
The thing about having a religious extremism motive is that a person can as easily be a religious crazy on ones own as one can as a part of an organised movement. And that leads us to the final point, which is that it’s harder to catch lone plotters, before they do something, than it is to catch those part of a terrorist organisation. You can’t monitor a communication that doesn’t exist between central HQ and the terrorist cell. I know there are a lot of people who think the current Boston story is that the American government let one get away – but it might have been that this was precisely the kind of case that is generally hard to solve. If a pair of brothers really do plan something all by themselves, the only people that know about it might have been the brothers, and the evidence of a plot might only be accessible after the event. The flip side of that, however, is that isolated plotters are much, much easier to catch after the event; they do not benefit from the resources of an organised group. Thus, the best strategy might be to do what the FBI, National Guard and Boston-area police forces did – to relentlessly hunt the bastards down, so it is clear – for deterrence value – that lone plotters will meet the full and focused force of the law. We may have to accept that breaking up the attack before the fact would be extremely difficult in lone plotter cases, but whomping those lone plotters that actually make attempts would send a potent message to anyone else who might have similar ideas.
Of course, as Ronald Reagan once said, facts are stupid things. I’m sure people will believe what they want to believe anyway. I’d still like to think there are a few people out there who actually care about what the facts tell us, though.