The speculation began before the smoke cleared: who was responsible for Monday’s terror attack at the Boston Marathon? What was their motive?
Not only is it human to speculate, it’s just about impossible for us not to. We’re inherently theoretical animals, constantly seeking more informed and reliable ways of understanding and explaining (and predicting) how the world works. (Well, most of us are like this, anyway. Highly dogmatic types have their theories locked in and have no interest in refining them.) So the speculation was natural, if not always helpful.
As you’d expect, a significant portion of the population leapt pretty quickly to the conclusion that it was foreign – and specifically Muslim – terrorists who were to blame. al Qaeda, perhaps. Maybe the Taliban. Could even be some new group we haven’t heard of before. In the absence of any data, any evidence, any context at all, this might be, at the least, a fair question to ask. After all, the US has been attacked before, multiple times, by extreme Islamist factions.
As my colleague Alex Palombo noted yesterday, this is precisely what happened. The New York Post, the Drudge Report, Erik Rush – you know, the guy you’ve seen on FOX News – even MSNBC, which, if they were as liberal as everyone accuses them of being, ought to know better, all of them were responsible for content that cast a suspicious eye toward Mecca. And of course, the general population gave us plenty of anti-Arab braying to ponder.
But, back to my criteria above: in the absence of data, evidence, context. That doesn’t really describe Monday’s events at all, does it? Consider:
- Monday was Patriots’ Day, which annually commemorates the April 19, 1775 battles at Lexington and Concord, the first of the Revolutionary War.
- Boston is, not to put too fine a point on it, the home of the original Tea Party. Significant swaths of the political right have seized upon the anti-tax symbolism of this event (although their grasp of the finer details surrounding the revolt often lacks a certain sophistication).
- While we’re on the subject of April 19, the bombing occurred in close proximity to the anniversary of the Branch Davidian standoff’s tragic climax.
- And April 19 is also the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.
- Let’s see – what else was Monday? Oh, right. April 15: Tax Day.
Any one of these items is a coincidence. Taken together, they begin to imply a possible pattern. They perhaps suggest a direction in which we might look as we speculate, since we know from long experience that terrorists love symbolism. Place, date – where you strike and when you strike delivers a message that’s often linked to your ideology, to the narrative you’re advancing.
Let me offer an example. Say you were an Iraqi driven to terrorist madness when American bombs dropped during Gulf War 2 killed members of your family. And you were going to bomb an American facility of some sort in retaliation. When would you do it? Well, you might do it on the anniversary of the bombing that killed your loved ones. Or maybe you’d do it on the anniversary of Saddam’s hanging. There are certainly other possibilities, but time and again, we see that people act symbolically, especially when making grand statements.
I’m not offering any of this as evidence of what you should be speculating. Far from it. We’re all better off reserving judgment until we have hard evidence to work with. Still, I admit to having some ideas of my own and I’ll be honest – if this turns out to be the work of Islamists I’ll be very, very surprised. Another colleague, Russ Wellen, raises the possibility that Islamists could have picked Patriots’ Day to cover their tracks, but that strikes me as unlikely. That breed of terrorist has a history of wanting credit for their actions.
My point, instead, is to question the pig-headedness of those who assume the attackers were Muslims. We’re not dealing with a situation in which there’s no symbolic context. On the contrary, there’s plenty of symbolic context and it all points directly away from foreign agents.
If there are thoughtful, insightful reasons to suspect Muslim extremists, I’d be interested in hearing them. But I’m not holding my breath.