Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Political violence and the Boston Marathon bombing (Updated)

Sadly, David Sirota is pointing to a grim reality here, Bombings like the Boston Marathon tragedy have become the 'new normal' 04/15/2013:

(Update: Digby complains about what I take to be a different twist on the "new normal" in connection with yesterday's bombing in Oh, I guess it's time to start mawkishly proclaiming a "new normal" Hullabaloo 04/16/2013. I think the phrase "new normal" is getting kind of hackneyed. But what I think Sirota gets right is that mass-casualty attacks have become accepted in some way as more routine over the last few years, in large part thanks to the gun lobby. In cold business calculations - "cold, dead hands" calculations, we might say - these mass casualty events are good for the firearms business. And the NRA uses them successfully to market around. General sensitivities have not yet been corrupted to the point that the NRA could explicitly say that recurrent mass-casualty attacks should be viewed as acceptable. But that's what their argument comes down to: their version of the Second Amendment accepts these events as the price of the "freedom" of gun proliferation for which they fight.)

Charlie Pierce, who has been reporting from Boston, has some useful reflections on political violence, without jumping to any conclusions about who may have been behind the Boston Marathon bombing. In The Morning After Esquire Politics Blog 04/16/2013 he writes:

It is in no way "politicizing" the events by mentioning that history teaches us that, on events like this, the universe of suspects is wider than many people would like to believe. All indications are that, one way or another, the bombing was a political act. It may have been the political act of madmen, but it was a political act, and it does us no good to pretend — as Chris Matthews attempted to do last night — that it was not. Somehow, somewhere, this act came from a dark vein of violence in somebody's politics. Those politics may be fashioned from mania, or even sociopathy, but they are fashioned out of politics nonetheless, and of the collapse of the faith that we can govern ourselves as we govern our passions, and that collapse is not the province of the mad or the angry. That collapse is caused by something deeply endemic in our systems and in ourselves. We have tolerated unreasoning hatred for far too long. We have abandoned the rational for the comfortable, and we have abandoned the empirical for the comfortably insane. We have given too much oxygen to the flame. ...

By six last night, you could tell the Feds were taking over the operation in and around Copley Square. The uniformed Boston cops were back out in the street, and a lot of people in windbreakers and earpieces popped up from around every corner, and the silly argument about whether the president should have said "terrorism" or not seemed particularly moot. Terrorism is in the mind of the terrorized, and there was nobody idly walking through Copley Square as Monday evening became Monday night. The sun came up this morning on a garrisoned city. Some people think one thing about that, and some people think another. But too many people think something completely insane, and that scares the hell out of me. In our politics, we must we must look the real monster in the eye, and not create phantoms because they are more easily killed. We have lost faith in that in which we cannot lose faith and survive. As investigators crawl over Copley Square, they might as well be looking for the democratic soul of a nation gone a bit mad.
Those comments are important, because in the post-9/11 era, the default responses to acts of terrorism from the media and authorities have tended to fall into two categories: anti-Muslim religious stereotyping and reductionist psychologizing.

Real acts and plots of terrorism involving Muslims are often reported with no real analysis or even basic factual reporting about the politics involved in them. Pierce is taking a speculative step in saying, "Somehow, somewhere, this act came from a dark vein of violence in somebody's politics." But his immediately following reminder is very important, "Those politics may be fashioned from mania, or even sociopathy, but they are fashioned out of politics nonetheless."

He's apparently drawing a conclusion from the nature of the attack, which was obviously designed not just to kill a lot of people but to spread confusion and terror.

When non-Muslims are involved, the reporting tends to be on the personal psychology of the perpetrator. We've had a string of terrorist and/or mass-casualty incidents over the past several years that have involved people with, yes, affinities for radical right politics. And the mainstream media is just plain scared to go there. So we have a string of incidents from assorted "lone nuts", which without any coherent and reality-based explanations of what the connections might be only serves to mystify the events and make them more terrifying.

Too many people are more than happy to use incidents like this to reinforce their preferred narrative of reality, even when it may be effectively irrelevant. (Over to you, Westboro Baptist!) But it's a problem that too much of the reporting and commentary doesn't provide the meaningful context to help us all interpret what is happening with such a series of events.

It's idiotic and bad religion, too, for fundamentalist Christians to say that God did this bombing, or used this bombing or whatever mealy-mouth qualifications someone might want to put on it, to punish the country for allowing gays and lesbians to live without being imprisoned.

But if it were to turn out to be some group behind this bombing that is particularly fixated with hating on gays, that would be relevant to understand how that train of influence worked to produced random killings and maiming in the Boston Marathon. And self-righteous patriotic moralism and hate-filled jingoism also shouldn't stop us from looking at the political motives of even foreign terrorist groups. As I've said here numerous times over the years, the idea that you shouldn't try to understand the ideas of The Enemy is a ridiculous and impractical concept. But it is useful if you want to paint them as Evil And Nothing But Evil.

Stephen Walt writes in On the Boston Marathon attacks Foreign Policy 04/16/2013:

There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven ... to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures -- as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday's race -- and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal's motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.

But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America -- or the rest of the world -- is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.

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