At a recent press conference, the president of the United States found it necessary to defend the efforts of law enforcement agencies to monitor the two Boston bombing suspects during the year before the attacks. He said that protocols were being reviewed in an effort to “further improve and enhance our ability to detect a potential attack.” Obama thus reinforced the expectation that the US guarantees to keep every citizen safe from any possible “terrorist” attack, no matter from what source, and no matter how much the government overrides the citizens’ own personal freedoms.
The US public’s sense of personal safety and identity is bound up with this state assurance of immunity from terrorist attacks (as opposed to run of the mill natural and social disasters). This expectation is incomprehensible to Europeans – as Michael Cohen commented in the Guardian: “Londoners, who endured IRA terror for years, might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They’re right – and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we’ve seen previously in the United States.” Clearly the response to the bombings expressed an ideological mindset specific to the US.
The Republican effort to embarrass the state department over its failure to prevent the attacks in Benghazi that killed four diplomats is part of the ongoing campaign to renew this mindset. It aims to ensure public acceptance of an even more militarized homeland by increasing fear of terrorism while maintaining the fiction that it is possible for the state to achieve domestic and global invulnerability for US citizens. At the same time, it diverts attention from US foreign policies that are creating resentment and resistance.
What made the Boston bombings shocking was that the Marathon is a symbol of inclusivity, a democratic ideal of people from all walks of life and levels of ability running the same race on a traditional Massachusetts holiday. The unexpected explosions that killed three and injured hundreds undermined confidence in the state’s ability to assure personal safety: to shore up its credibility, the media and political establishment rushed to describe the explosions as a terrorist rather than criminal act before any evidence had been gathered about the suspects and their motives.
The effort and resources then spent by the security forces on detecting and locating the two suspects contrasts with the authorities’ acceptance that the explosion in a Texas fertilizer plant that killed 14 people two days later was accidental – despite the fact that the plant had broken every regulation governing storage of explosive materials.
Steven Rosenfeld pointed out in Alternet: “By labeling the bombing as terrorism, the government and mainstream media elevated one exceptionally violent act to a level that is not accorded to the everyday violence that afflicts American society.” Political (as opposed to racial) violence is thought of as being outside of the American experience, while industrial catastrophes and daily gun killings are as American as apple pie.
Currently security agencies and the press are working full-time to try and establish a link between the Tsarnaev brothers and sympathizers of al-Qaeda. Analyzing the responses of the mainstream media, Gary Leupp notes its fixation with the brothers’ foreign contacts rather than their concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Either way the issue becomes merely us versus ‘radical Islam’—leaving the wars unmentioned, as though they played only a marginal role in the boys’ ‘radicalization’.”
However, the New York Times reported that former top FBI counterterrorism official Philip Mudd was struck by the brothers’ lack of sophistication, and considered they had as much in common with white supremacists or rightwing anti-government extremists as with al-Qaeda. “They’re angry kids with a veneer of ideology that’s about skin-deep,” he said.
The traditional definition of terrorism is a violent act by a non-state actor for political ends against an overwhelmingly powerful imperial state. But while these acts aim at terrorizing a population, not all violent acts are recognized as terrorism. The US, for example, justifies exceptional violence by political groups like the Mujahedeen-e Khalq it supports in Iran and death squads it trained in Latin America. Terrorism is not defined by a state in relation to its effects but only in relation to its own interests: the FLN undoubtedly carried out acts of terror in Algeria and France, but today’s Algerian state would not describe them as terrorism.
Michael Brenner notes in Counterpunch: “The United States government has passed laws (e.g. The Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that are grounded on broad formulations of what constitutes terrorist acts. They include an encompassing category of aiding and abetting terrorism. These statutes are so loosely drawn that, as a practical matter, a terrorist is anyone the authorities want to declare a terrorist.”
But it’s not a completely arbitrary process – in defining its enemies, a state also defines itself. Glenn Greenwald observes that the US definition of terrorism is “a Muslim who commits violence against America and its allies,” unlike similar violent acts by non-Muslims. By demarcating its other as specifically Muslim resistance, the US projects itself as a militarized society geared for war to defend its control over oil and energy sources. “Terror” is the ideological justification of a militarized state that increasingly restricts citizens’ personal rights, while needing to retain citizens’ loyalty and obedience to its laws.
Henry Giroux comments: “[T]he American public has been schizophrenically immersed within a culture of fear and cruelty punctuated by a law-and-order driven promise for personal safety, certainty, and collective protection that amounted to a Faustian bargain with the devil, one in which Americans traded constitutional rights and numerous civil liberties for the ever expanding presence of a militarized security and surveillance state run by a government that has little regard for human rights or the principles of justice and democracy.”
Each un-prevented attack destabilizes the Faustian bargain. However, it’s not a one-way street: the Boston lockdown did not have to be enforced by the authorities, but was self-imposed by Bostonians who wanted above all for the perpetrators to be caught. Although the two brothers were identified from intensive analysis of video surveillance, the subsequent lockdown of the city and mobilization of huge numbers of police to search the area did not find suspect #2 until a watchful homeowner noticed blood on the tarp of his boat. All the military hardware assembled in the name of Homeland Security did not prevent the bombings nor facilitate the bombers’ capture.
The reason Americans freak out when faced with these attacks is because of a continuing political strategy by the ruling elite to manufacture fear of Muslims and depict them as the epitome of everything unknown, alien and evil. But this underscores the fact that the legitimacy of the militarized state is tenuous; it is balancing between what it can get away with under the cover of public safety and what infringements on their democratic rights citizens will strongly resist.
UPDATE: Rep. Darrell Issa confirms the importance of this semantic distinction for Washington, criticizing Obama’s initial characterization of the Benghazi attacks as an “act of terror.” During an interview with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Issa claimed: “… an act of terror is different than a terrorist attack. The truth is, this was a terrorist attack, this had al Qaeda at it …”
UPDATE 2: Jane Powers and Frank Ascasco noted the same issue when Obama initially refused to describe the Boston bombings as terrorism before “we have all the facts.” “Laudable though his goal was,” they wrote, “implicit in Obama’s use of the term is that terrorism can only be committed by Muslim people. … in the language of Washington, terrorism has such a warped meaning that it can’t even be identified unless we know it was a Muslim person who did it.”