The brutal, senseless bomb attack on the Boston Marathon – turning a glorious spring day of celebration into a bloody scene of death and injury – serves as another reminder, as if any were needed, that terrorism is now our “new normal.” And although since 9/11 we’ve been comparatively lucky and increasingly sophisticated at intercepting plots and plotters, terror is now a feature of our country that’s here to stay.
We simply can’t assume we’re safe here in the homeland.
After any such attack, there is a tendency to ask, “What went wrong?” Was there an intelligence failure? Why did our vaunted law enforcement fail to detect it in time? Could something have been done to prevent it? And, for those tempted to try to score political points off a national tragedy, some will inevitably question whether the president and his administration let their guard down, or were too quick to declare the al-Qaeda leadership decimated – or too tardy to label the Boston bombings an act of “terror.” Some may blame budget cuts for affecting our intelligence gathering. Others may suggest we should never have abandoned “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a poor euphemism for torture.
But any such second guessing misses the larger point; we’ve had a decade of foiled and fumbled plots following the 9/11 strikes – the hapless shoe bomber, the incompetent underwear bomber, the bungled Times Square bombing where “we dodged a bullet big time,” as street vendor and hero Duane M. Jackson, who discovered the suspiciously abandoned smoking vehicle, told me in New York the next day.
But at some point, one plot somewhere was bound to succeed. And the odds are, there will be others.
To be clear; at this writing, we have no idea who was behind this attack. It could be al Qaeda or an off-shoot, or a deranged lone ranger inspired by its extremist anti-American rhetoric. It could be a home-grown terrorist in the mode of the Oklahoma City bomber, striking, as did Timothy McVeigh, in this dreaded week of April out of sick solidarity with the Waco siege or to commemorate Adolf Hitler’s April 20 birthday.
What we should do, first, is avoid needless speculation until the facts are in. I was in Spain in March, 2004, preparing to cover national parliamentary elections, when a series of bombs ripped through four packed commuter trainsduring the morning rush hour. The center-right government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar immediately blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for the attacks. But by evening time, when a van was discovered containing several detonator caps and cassette tapes with Koran verses in Arabic, the focus shifted to al Qaeda – and public anger rose over what looked like a government attempt to shift the blame away from Aznar’s close alliance with the Bush administration’s unpopular Iraq War. Aznar’s party ended up losing an election it was expected to win. And the bombers largely succeeded in their aim of impacting the Spanish democratic system, as I wrote about in a later article for The Washington Post.
So rather than trying to sift through the list of usual suspects, the better course now would be to focus on the victims, and on all the things we need to do here to accommodate this shift to a “new normal” while trying to maintain some vestige of the openness that makes us uniquely American.
Despite all the attempts to target us, we have remained by far one of the most open and free countries I’ve ever lived and worked. Unlike, for example, Israel, where security guards search backpacks at the entrance to every shop, restaurant or mall, we remain proudly protective of our individual rights – protesting, inanely to me, pat-downs at the airport, or scanning devises some people, for some reason, deem too “intrusive.”
In Beijing, where I lived until January 2013, no one carries a bag, briefcase or purse into a subway station without putting it through a metal detector – security put in place before the Olympics, and because of fears of attacks by Uigher separatists or others bent on causing havoc in the capital. Here, I cannot recall ever once putting my huge bags through a scanner even to board the Amtrak train on the crowded Boston-New York-Washington corridor.
Having to undergo a computerized background check to buy a high-powered assault weapon is derided as an infringement on our Constitutional rights, even though you have to have a license, registration and insurance to get behind the wheel of a car or ride a motorcycle.
Despite all the plots foiled and plotters nabbed in sting operations, we’ve maintained a steely “it can’t happen here” nonchalance, while professing perhaps over confident faith in the genius of our intelligence-gathering apparatus. Every close call or foiled plot is seen not as a near-miss or stroke of luck, but is incessantly picked apart by politicians desperate to find where the “system” failed. Just tinker here, improve this, give more money to that, and – voila – we should be able to prevent every plot to harm us.
But a word of caution is due. And since this week marks the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who survived the Irish Republican Army’s Brighton Hotel bombing that killed five people, it is worth recalling the IRA’s chilling words claiming responsibility for that attack.
After failing to kill Thatcher and her cabinet, the IRA in a statement warned: “Today we were unlucky. But remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”