The last time I had to talk about terrorism and Boston was 9/11. There was no Facebook to help assure friends and colleagues, and I did not own a cell phone, let alone a smart phone. But the media called. The Al Qaeda operatives had boarded their planes at Boston Logan Airport, the airport I use more than 100 times a year.
As someone who studies international security, I was asked then about 9/11, and today I have been asked about the Boston Marathon. Some things seem quite familiar. Others are new. Still others are a puzzle. But there are also some fundamental truths.
Most of us will be tempted to treat each new fact as evidence for a particular conclusion. But there will be many facts, and different facts will point in different directions — all at the same time.
On both 9/11 and yesterday, some early reports turned out to be misleading or just plain wrong. An earlier report that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library was the site of an attack is a case in point. There was no attack at the library. It was, instead, an electrical fire. It was an honest mistake, and there is no avoiding those kinds of errors. The key here is not blame, but patience. In 48 hours, law enforcement and intelligence officials will have a wealth of information, and we will know a lot more about what took place.
That brings us to what is different. Today, investigators have access to data that, in some cases, did not even exist on 9/11. Cell phone tower transmission data, surveillance video, iPhone photos from a picture-taking crowd celebrating at the finish line. That, together with a scouring of telephone and email communications across the globe, will help rule out and rule in potential suspects.
And some things are a puzzle. For example, why did the bombs go off so long after the winners crossed the finish line? Is it a sign of incompetence, good defense by the government, or some unknown motive? Is the timing tied to Patriot’s Day or the U.S. tax deadline or both or neither? Is the perpetrator of foreign or domestic origin and motivation?
Here again, it’s best to be patient. Most of us will be tempted to treat each new fact as evidence for a particular conclusion. But there will be many facts, and different facts will point in different directions — all at the same time. Reports that there were multiple explosives set for near-simultaneous detonation might suggest organizational sophistication. Yet at the same time, the relatively low-grade of the reported explosive (non-military) and the late timing could suggest the opposite.
There are news reports that a foreign student is being interviewed by the police (traditionally, not a very strong indicator of anything at all) even as most experts (myself included) think that a decentralized Al Qaeda is more focused on regional goals in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere and not on the U.S. homeland.
So there is a lot we do not yet know at this moment.
More than a decade after 9/11, I am more impressed by American resilience and restraint than I am by the errors.
But there are other things we do know that are fundamentally more important. On 9/11, I stood before the camera and said with confidence that the country I knew would bounce back. That wasn’t schmaltzy faux patriotism. That was my honest assessment. I worried then that, if anything, we might over-react and reach too far. And we did, but more than a decade after 9/11, I am more impressed by American resilience and restraint than I am by the errors.
Today, in the place I have called home, there is no doubt in my mind where this goes from here. If you have lived in Boston, you probably already know this. If you haven’t, let me assure you, that you need not doubt the strength or spirit of this particular American city. It proved itself in an earlier time, a time it was commemorating yesterday, Patriots’ Day. And the video of people rushing in to help the injured speaks for itself, but it is bigger than even that.
Boston is not the biggest city in America; it is not the most politically powerful. But it has an inner determination and power that only the foolish ignore. Next year, at the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, I confidently predict there will be more runners and more supporters than ever before.
The attackers, whoever they are must be incompetent.
They picked on the wrong city.
- Latest coverage
- PHOTOS: Explosions at finish line
- Revere apartment searched in connection to explsions
- 8-year-old boy among fatalities
Boston Marathon Bombings
Three people were killed and more than 170 injured when two bombs exploded on April 15, 2013 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Cognoscenti Contributors Respond
- Kevin Donovan: Explosions Sounded Like Cannon Fire
- Jim Walsh: They Picked On The Wrong City
- Robin Young: Our History Will Be A Guide For The Future
- David Ropeik: Why Terrorism Works
- Eileen McNamara: The Redemption Of The Man In The Cowboy Hat
- Alex Ashlock: The Scenes I Will Remember
- Sharon Brody: Suddenly Calling Boston Home — With A Vengeance
- E.M. Swift: Spectator Sports Will Never Be The Same
- Anita Diamant: After The Bombs, Pop-Up Landmarks Of Consolation And Solidarity
Related Coverage from WBUR, NPR and AP