Perhaps the biggest surprise of the horrific bombings that disfigured the Boston Marathon is that they have been so long in coming. Since 9/11, America has been witness to several individual rampages that have been more murderous, most recently of course December’s school shootings in Connecticut. But Monday’s carnage was the first act of terrorism, as normally defined, in the US in a dozen years.
Not that there have been no attempts. Some – like those of the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – failed because the explosive devices did not work properly. Others were nipped in the bud by the authorities, or thwarted by alert citizens. But the absence, until this week, of a deadly strike is testament to the reinforced security measures in force since the September 2001 attacks. However onerous and tiresome, they have essentially succeeded in keeping the country safe.
As the FBI made clear yesterday, the pursuit of the person or persons responsible for the Boston atrocity may take some time. Encouragingly, and in contrast to some earlier terrorist incidents, no one is jumping to any conclusion other than the obvious one – that the two bombs were a deliberate act of terrorism. If they are linked to radical Islam, they will raise once more the spectre of homegrown terrorists; for these days it is far harder for a foreign cell to set up in the US than was the case with the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks.
However, it is equally possible the plot was the work of far-right domestic terrorists. Boston’s insurrectionary traditions date back to the Tea Party in 1773, and in the twisted ideology of today’s so-called “patriot” groups, united by a rabid hatred of government, no time of year is more symbolic than mid-April.
Monday’s deadline for filing 2012 tax returns is emblematic, for ultra-libertarians, of the state’s encroachment on individual freedom. This week also marks two especially bloody anniversaries: of the FBI attack, 20 years ago, on the Branch Davidian headquarters outside Waco in Texas, and of the Oklahoma City bombing two years later.
The number of identified patriot groups has never been higher, and the prospect of gun control legislation – considered yet another assault on basic civil liberty – could provide an extra motive. As the hunt begins for the perpetrators of the Boston atrocity, we should remember that in 1995 it was instantly, near-universally assumed that Islamic extremists were responsible for the Oklahoma bomb – until an obscure anti-government fanatic named Timothy McVeigh was stopped by a state trooper for driving without a number plate.
Whether home- or foreign-made however, the Boston attack has one novel and disturbing aspect. Major sporting events, where large numbers of people gather in a restricted space, are an obvious target for terrorists. And few are more vulnerable than the finish of a big city marathon – a celebratory moment for thousands of runners and their families.
It is important not to overreact, however. In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans feared that such incidents would be common and that terrorist violence would become a regular feature of daily life. Instead it was heightened security precautions that became part of life. The sad fact is that in Boston, London and every major city, although terrorism can be contained, it cannot – without an unacceptable surrender of freedom – be eradicated entirely.