As you are undoubtedly already aware, two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday, killing three people and injuring over 170.
Bombs in public places are a daily fact of life in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other troubled countries, but why? I know it is about political conflict, but what are these bombers actually accomplishing? The people of a country plagued by bomb attacks aren’t more likely to say, “Right, you guys with the bombs who killed my family, I want you to be in charge.” It’s not even about frightening people into capitulation. It’s most often an expression of capital-N Nihilism, the pitiless philosophy that existing social and political institutions must be destroyed to create a space for some new order.
Bombings like this, or those in the Middle East, are an attempt to degrade the structure of society. They impose a burden of security expense, reduce freedom of movement, encourage overreaction by security forces, and cripple the mutual trust on which a society depends. Explosions like this are designed to shatter the basic confidence people need to engage in ordinary civic life.
The big question hanging in the air right now is who did it. I have a few ideas on this subject, with huge caveats attached. I wouldn’t bother even speculating at this point, except that a number of commentators have predictably jumped on the “Muslim terrorist” bandwagon. The questioning of a Saudi national evoked a flurry of speculation, although now investigators do not consider the man to be connected, except as a victim.
Mostly, I have an idea of who didn’t do it.
The jihadists have been markedly silent so far. There are no news reports of any al Qaeda franchises claiming responsibility, something that would be automatic if it was such an organization. In fact, the Pakistani Taliban (which claimed responsibility for an attack in Times Square in 2010) went out of their way to deny responsibility. Al Shabaab or similar organizations would be shouting their triumph over the Great Satan by now. This silence goes against all previous instances of jihadist attacks. The lack of a claim of responsibility is characteristic of a domestic perpetrator.
That leaves us with various domestic suspects. There are elements of this attack that tell a story about that.
The first clue is the nature of the explosions themselves. Witnesses noted a smell of sulfur in the air. That points to gunpowder rather than high explosives. Watching the videos of the explosions I noticed the grayish-white smoke, the large yellow-orange fireball, the booming sound, and the relatively slow nature of the blast. The speed of the shock wave was actually slow enough to be visible on video as it blew out banners at ground level. These factors also point towards old fashioned black gunpowder, readily available for use in old-style muzzle-loading firearms.
The use of black powder indicates either a lack of expertise or connections. More powerful explosives such as dynamite, C-4, or even the kind of fertilizer based explosive used in Oklahoma City would have been more effective. One would think that a member of some organized, extended group would have access either to stolen or formulated high explosives.
An anonymous source inside the ongoing investigation told the AP that the bombs were made out of pressure cookers, with ball bearings and nails surrounding the explosive. The pressure cooker bomb has been a common improvisation in the Middle East and Central Asia, but given internet access to such information it doesn’t necessarily point to those areas as a source. What we’re looking at is a pair of simple, low powered devices made from readily available parts.
The timing of the explosions is another clue. They happened roughly 20 seconds apart. That speaks to timers. A set of remotely detonated bombs would have gone off simultaneously.
Then there is the overall timing. The bombs were set near the finish line of the marathon, but detonated four hours and nine minutes into the race, long after the front runners and the not-so-front runners had finished and departed. The crowds at the sidelines were far thinner than they would have been an hour or two earlier. A member of the Boston Police Department noted that they had swept the area for bombs earlier in the day and then before the first runners had finished, so the probability is that the perpetrator waited until after the last sweep to place them. The same source that spoke of the pressure cookers said that the bombs had been placed on the ground in black duffle bags.
The picture that emerges is someone of moderate mechanical competence and some local knowledge. He was familiar enough with the Boston Marathon to know that the last few blocks of the course were the ones where people were packed, and waited until after the second police sweep. He made moderately powerful bombs, but lacked access to high explosives. He used timers rather than a more complex remote cell phone detonation.
Then there is the target and the date. A marathon is an obvious high profile assembly of thousands of people, but why not the New York Marathon or some other? Why not a target with more political significance?
People have pointed out that the date is significant. It is known in Massachusetts as Patriot’s Day. It is the Monday-holiday manifestation of the battle of Lexington and Concord, fought on April 19th. Aside from its obvious significance in U.S. history, it was the date of the 1993 attack on the compound of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Subsequently, Timothy McVeigh picked it as the date for bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Since then the date has had significance to extreme anti-government right wing groups. This year it also happens to be tax day. Right wing extremists also have a habit of not publicly claiming responsibility.
Here we get into a correlation vs. causation problem. The Boston Marathon is a huge, well publicized event and a soft target. It has been run on Patriot’s Day for over a hundred years. Was the motivation for this particular time and place the event, the date being incidental, or because the vulnerable event was on this particular date?
The problem with the right-wing extremist scenario is that the target doesn’t fit the pattern. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a comprehensive timeline of violent attacks by right-wing anti-government, Christian identity, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups on its website. The targets have been law enforcement officers, government buildings, government officials, abortion providers, minorities, and non-Christian religious buildings. Aside from a few bank robberies all the targets have been explicitly ideological. It’s hard to come up with an ideological identity for the Boston marathon. Although right-wing groups have often manufactured pipe bombs, just as often they have either formulated or obtained high explosives.
So it doesn’t look jihadist and it doesn’t look overtly ideological. With caveats layered on caveats, this looks like a mentally ill loner in the style of James Holmes, the Aurora movie theater shooter. If so, he was probably from the area. Perhaps there is an ideological motive in this, as with Jared Loughner, but secondary to the pursuit of some vaguely defined revenge on society. I could easily be completely wrong on this, but it’s the way the evidence points so far.
So what do we do in the face of this, especially if it is the apolitical act of a vengeful paranoid? Go in exactly the opposite of the direction intended by the perpetrator. Strengthen our ties to each other. Engage in public life. Go out of our normal paths to show compassion for others. Extend our trust and good will to strangers. I’ll repeat that: Extend our trust and good will to strangers. That is the first societal casualty of this kind of event. In a way it would be reacting to him, but more importantly it would be denying him power over us. No matter who the perpetrator and what his motive, it is what we should be doing anyway.