Reject Fear in the Wake of the Boston Bombing


With the capture of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death of his brother Tamerlan, a harrowing week for the people of Boston, Watertown, and surrounding areas appears to have finally come to a close. Much praise and thanks should go to our brave men and women in blue at the federal, state, and local levels for tracking these suspects down, and to the people of the Boston area for soldiering through this intense situation.

During and in the immediate aftermath of a violent incident such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt, a natural and completely understandable reaction is one of fear. We all worry about whether we could be the victims of a similar terrorist attack and how we would protect our family and friends in such a situation. And the first inclination for many is to turn within and shut out an external world that appears scary and dangerous. These are all natural reactions that it would be foolhardy to discount or pretend that we won’t feel.

As we move forward, however, it is critical that we reject fear as our basis for action because, as we saw with our response after the 9/11 attacks, fear clouds our judgment and leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. A fear based response would lead us astray in at least two ways. First, it leads us to take actions that are ineffective or even counter-productive in actually keeping us safe. For example, after 9/11, we were fed a steady diet of fear of Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, WMDs, etc. The result was a populace willing to accept ridiculous security theater at airports, the torture of detainees, the corrosion of Constitutional rights, and an unnecessary and misguided war in Iraq. As the English philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge is quoted as saying, “in politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly.” The fear-based response to 9/11 promoted by the Bush-Cheney Administration demonstrated the veracity of that quote in spades.

The second problem with a fear-based response to terrorism is that it plays into the hands of terrorists. Terrorists do not have the military, economic, or political might to defeat or even pose a real threat to our nation, military, or economy as a whole. So, instead, they attempt to weaken us by sowing terror and getting us to respond in ways that undermine what makes our nation a vibrant place to live. But the terrorist’s strategy, of course, relies in large part on how we respond. If we refuse to cower in fear, abandon our values, waste our resources, etc. in response, the impact of terrorism will be substantial and horrible in individual situations, but relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.

So what does avoiding a fear-based response mean in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings? Most immediately, it means showing the world that our criminal justice system works by expeditiously Mirandizing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, (after a short period of questioning under the public safety exception), charging him as a murderer, and trying him in our federal court system, with all of the rights and protections afforded under the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What we should not do is heed the call of Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) to further undermine our system of civil liberties that protects us all by declaring Tsarnaev an “enemy combatant.”

Looking ahead, we need to avoid the temptation to cower in fear and erect even more security theater throughout our society. Since 9/11, we have wasted vast resources on meaningless “security” procedures, especially at airports, that have infringed on civil liberties, imposed substantial inconveniences on travelers, all while doing virtually nothing to reduce the risk of terrorism. The Boston Marathon bombing will likely lead to calls to expand such theater elsewhere. But we should resist those calls, because it is largely a waste of money that does not keep us safe.

In the immediate wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama stated that “The American people refuse to be terrorized.” Similarly, in his speech in Boston on Thursday, our President proclaimed:

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.

These statements are exactly the right way to respond to a horrible incident such as the bombing. But it remains to be seen whether this is how we will respond. The mainstream media is, not surprisingly, playing the incident as a way to generate fear. In addition to some GOP Senators calling for treating Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, we are seeing calls for the suspect to be waterboarded, and other GOP Senators are questioning whether the fact that Tsarnaev was an immigrant (who became a citizen last year) means we should step away from immigration reform efforts.

Fear sells and motivates people to act. So, it is inevitable that over the next few weeks we will see the media, conservative politicians, and special interest groups try to feed us a steady diet of fear. But the worst thing we could do is to respond to the horrible and tragic events in Boston with more fear. A far better response would be for us all to take a deep breath, mourn the losses, work to bring the perpetrators to justice, and continue on with our lives, rather than giving in to the purveyors of terror or fear. Or, in the words of the British rallying cry during the bombings of London in World War II, we need to keep calm and carry on.

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