Boston lockdown was a triumph for the demented rationale of terrorism

In the US, an improvised bomb provokes hysteria but gun murders of children lead to shameful indifference

Signs at a makeshift memorial  for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, near the marathon finish line. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Signs at a makeshift memorial for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, near the marathon finish line. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images


I’ve lived and worked on and off in the United States over the last 15 years. And I still don’t understand American attitudes to violence. Last Friday, as it happened, I was making my way to Boston for a conference. Except that there was no Boston to go to. A major city had been turned into the set of an apocalyptic thriller, populated only by armed men and breathless reporters. The word of the day was “lockdown”. The train from New York to Boston was turned back at Providence, Rhode Island. The nearest one could get, in other words, was 80km from Boston. It was as if the entire city were a radioactive disaster zone.

Why? Because of one 19-year-old kid – admittedly a 19-year-old kid suspected of involvement in a savage attack on the Boston Marathon and in subsequent desperate crimes. There were good reasons to suppose this kid was dangerous. But so dangerous as to close down an entire city and its satellite towns? So dangerous that well over a million people should be instructed to stay at home with their doors locked?

The conference I was going to was cancelled but a friend in Boston emailed me to say that it was worth trying to get to the city anyway: “One other reason to travel up here is to observe the unique phenomenon of a city besieging itself. What’s going on is preposterous. A city population incarcerated and glued to their TVs by a 19-year-old. And this tsunami of information produces a city not more informed, but entirely divorced from reality: ‘How would you describe the scene here?’ a reporter on TV has just asked a random Bostonian. ‘Postapocalyptic,’ was her answer…” The same friend also used the memorable phrase “security porn” to describe the bizarre reality of people stuck in front of their screens sucking up images of Swat teams and military helicopters that seemed to be playing on an endless loop.

The great foolishness of this hysteria was that it threw away the dignity and resilience with which most Americans – and especially Bostonians – actually reacted to the attack on the marathon. There’s something very moving in the instinctive way that ordinary Americans respond to these assaults. They show solidarity and they carry on, facing down fear. President Obama spoke for them when he addressed a service in Holy Cross cathedral in Boston on Thursday: “Your resolve is the greatest rebuke to whoever committed this heinous act… That’s our strength. That’s why a bomb can’t beat us. That’s why we don’t hunker down. That’s why we don’t cower in fear.” Yet, just a day later, here was the city being instructed to hunker down and cower in fear.

The power of a word

Why? Because of three letters – ism. This is all about the power of a word. Call the attack on the marathon an “act of terror” and what happens? Far, far, too little. Adam Lanza attacked Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in December and murdered 20 children and six adults. This was an act of terror to which most Americans wanted a serious response. But last Wednesday, the US Senate rejected a bipartisan plan to strengthen background checks for people buying guns. An attempt to ban assault weapons didn’t even make it to a vote. Murdering little children is an act of terror but it is not an act of terrorism – and therein lies a world of difference. Those three letters transform shameful indifference to absurd hysteria.

What happened in Boston on Friday was completely irrational. There is no need to close down an entire city because you’re searching for one potentially murderous criminal. If there were, most American cities would be shut down most of the time. Is there ever a time in, say, Chicago, when someone suspected of having committed a murder is not on the loose with lethal weapons? And in fact, the authorities tacitly admitted the folly of what they were doing when they eventually lifted the lockdown with the suspect still at large.

More importantly, the lockdown was morally and politically counterproductive. It was a triumph for the demented rationale of terrorism, which is to spread as much fear as widely and deeply as possible, to make a society distort its own values by terrifying it. What’s the message to would-be terrorists? Exactly the opposite of the one that President Obama articulated: that you’ve succeeded in frightening us, almost literally, out of our minds.

Counter terrorist mindset

Shoot dozens of people with an AK47 in a school or a cinema and it’s an unfortunate by product of the constitutional right to bear arms. Attack people with an improvised bomb and it’s an act of terrorism that demands the suspension of all normal values and rationality. The counterterrorist mindset kicks in, the “homeland security” apparatus takes charge and the next thing you know a major city looks for all the world as if it has been taken over in a military coup. Stick those three letters on the end of “terror” and you are dealing with an existential threat that justifies any extreme response. You have named fear and told everyone to feel it.

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