Events unfolded rapidly in Boston this week, from the bombing on Monday to release of photos of the suspects on Thursday to the citywide manhunt for one brother and the killing of the other. While we now know that the two young men are ethnic Chechens who spent time in Kyrgyzstan, we know nothing as yet about why they did what they did.
But perhaps less important than whatever their rationale turns out to have been is how the United States is reacting to the events of this week. On that score, the initial reactions here suggest that we may have turned a post-9/11 corner: still shocked, still pained, but no longer so fearful, or so ready to blame religious zealots, or so willing to discard the freedoms that give us such strengths and yet can, at times, leave us so vulnerable.
There will always be people who find some reason to wreak havoc and inflict pain. Yes, such attacks can kill and maim, and thankfully, the Boston Marathon bombing, horrible though it was, did only limited physical harm considering the number of runners and the size of the crowds. It’s what comes after that shapes our lives even more. It’s how society reacts that affects not the hundreds directly harmed and the three killed, not the thousands of friends and loved ones, but the millions and hundreds of millions who were touched only through their sympathy.
The United States has had only limited experience with these attacks, whether foreign or domestic. While the Newtown massacre was a reminder that America is no stranger to homegrown gun violence, bombs designed to shock as well as kill are rarer. In fact, only in the past 50 years has American society slowly adjusted to the types of theatrical violence that the Boston bombing represented.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, repeated Cuban hijackings of U.S. planes led to the first installments of security layers at airports, including metal detectors. In 1993, the World Trade Center was shaken by a bomb detonated in one of its parking garages, killing six and wounding 1,000. In 1995, the Murrah office building in Oklahoma City was blown up, killing 168. And the September 11th death tally was nearly 3,000.
Each of these episodes changed daily life for everyone, and none more so than 9/11. From intensive security in many office buildings to much more intensive screening at airports, from a vastly expanded surveillance network of electronic communications to cameras in urban areas, which have allowed the Boston authorities to identify those suspects, our lives have been changed. The response to the hijackings of the 1970s seems almost quaint by today’s standards: metal detectors. Then, after several international episodes of bombs bringing planes down, authorities demanded that luggage be scanned. Still, while flying before 2001 was a hassle, it was not a security gantlet punctuated by fear.
The American response to 9/11 was both brutally effective in targeting those who did it – al-Qaeda and its state-sponsors, the Taliban – and ham-handed. Today, we feel its effects most when we travel, and the contrast between traveling from U.S. airports and other airports is visceral. Other countries have adopted similar screening techniques, but airports in Spain and Indonesia (both of which I flew out of recently) don’t exude the same degree of tension. In New Zealand, domestic flights are still like America of the 1970s.
That screening may be a small price to pay, but the widespread suspicion of Muslims has been a greater harm, as has the culture of classification and secrecy that grew rapidly in Washington just as the national security state did in the face of the Cold War.
The initial leap of some news outlets to Muslim-bait was also quashed, as the appetite for such easy blame appears to be fading. As it turns out, the two brothers are Muslim, but not Arab, not Iranian, and not affiliated with any known organized group. That says no more about Islam than Cuban hijackings in the 1970s said something about Catholicism, or than Timothy McVeigh and his Oklahoma madness said anything about Protestants.
In the reaction to the Boston bombings, we are seeing, at least for now, an outburst of balanced outrage. I lived in Boston for seven years in the 1990s. It was a tough place – not threatening, just tough. Removed from the years of busing that had brought out the us-versus-them worst, it wasn’t yet as gentrified and reborn after the multibillion-dollar Big Dig.
The DNA of cities takes a while to change, and you could feel in the many reactions from Bostonians that they were hurt, angry, and determined to catch whoever did it. But they were equally determined to keep going without making too many compromises about their lives. The city was shut down on Friday to make it easier for law enforcement to do their job, but for a very specific reason, not some generalized fear.
It’s been said for years that we have ample tools via law enforcement agencies to guard against attacks and pursue those who undertake them. The Boston response is classic law enforcement, with the FBI leading the way, the police doing the vital work, and untold numbers of volunteers and responders adding to the mix.
Terror is not an act per se; it’s the creation of fear via an act. It’s been said that Russia is relatively immune to terror, even after a number of gruesome and far more lethal episodes in recent years. In 2004, a school in Beslan was seized by Chechen fighters. When Russian troops stormed the school, nearly 400 people died. Yet that had little discernible impact on Russian attitudes or behavior.
Russians are largely impervious to the effects of terror attacks because they don’t expect perfect security. They expect a world fraught with peril, and probably too much, though their history suggests that peril is the norm. Hence random acts of terror don’t terrorize.
Yet England, Spain, France and Israel have also been subject to domestic attacks, Israel especially, and they have managed to thread a path between changing their chosen way of life and increasing their vigilance. The Israelis have defied the worst of domestic attacks by refusing to stop living the way they wish. If a café was bombed, there was urgency to reopen quickly and collect contributions from patrons for a guard. Paris, London and Madrid all have had subway and train bombings in the past 20 years, but these have not lead to massive external changes in how their vital hubs were used daily. Instead, they led to far more camera surveillance and occasional police presence, much has been the case in New York City this past decade.
It’s too soon to say with certainty that the collective response to Boston indicates both a more mature and more effective phase in how we deal with danger. Yes, there will be changes to the marathon next year, in Boston, and then also in New York, London and wherever races are held. It may be harder to get near the finish line, but the danger won’t disappear. Someone can always find a way if what they want is to kill and maim. What can change is how much these acts matter to us, and how much strength we exude, not by reshaping our lives to prevent them but by defying them – by changing our lives so little.
Zachary Karabell is president of River Twice Research and River Twice Capital. A regular commentator on CNBC and a contributing editor for Newsweek/Daily Beast, he is the coauthor of “Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World” and “Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World’s Prosperity Depends on It.”