Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, we’ve known it would happen again. When the next terrorist attack came, we wondered, would we handle it differently? Would we find a better balance between security and freedom?
Immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing, a Saudi national took off running. He was tackled and arrested. Police searched his residence, but quickly announced he had nothing to do with the bombings. Before the announcement, the New York Post published his photo and nationality on Page 1.
I couldn’t help sympathize with the Saudi for running. If there is anything a non-Caucasian Muslim in the United States legitimately fears, it is being anywhere near a terrorist attack. He was an immediate suspect because of his ethnicity. The Post confirmed the validity of his fears. He should have run faster.
The nearly 7 million Muslims who reside in the United States no doubt groaned when they got word that the brothers who placed bombs at the marathon were self-identified followers of Islam.
As I write this on Friday, we know nothing about the bombers’ motives and little about who they are. They were legal immigrants born in Chechnya who had lived in the United States for years. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received a scholarship to a Cambridge high school and headed his wrestling team. The 19-year-old was majoring in marine biology at a Massachusetts university. Yet with this sliver of information, the sober Associated Press already was running stories about Chechen militants in the West. No telling what the Post was running.
It may turn out that the Tsarnaev brothers are Islamic extremists. It also may turn out that they are run-of-the-mill misfits like the Americans who slaughtered children in Newtown, Conn., or fired on officials in Tucson or targeted moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. They may have more in common with the Elvis impersonator from Mississippi alleged to have sent ricin to elected officials than to Chechen terrorists who have targeted Russia.
We are, in other words, doing the same thing we did in 2001. The determination to expand culpability beyond the murderers — to focus our anger on a definable religious or ethnic group — is starting not with the government, but with the people and the press. For this is to play out differently than in 2001, elected officials would have to resist the panic and prejudices of their constituents. Politicians are notoriously bad at doing so, falling more easily into the politically beneficial strategy of egging on our fears.
While the casualties were fewer, the rush of events since the Boston Marathon felt like those following the terrorist attacks of September 2001. The tragedies brought out the crazies, creating real threats. We are scared. The constant reports of suspected bombs weigh on us, even when they turn out to be textbooks in a misplaced backpack.
What we want is protection. We demand it from our leaders. Niceties like Due Process and religious tolerance are forgotten.
Democrats and many Republicans love to blame former President George W. Bush for the loss of individual liberties that resulted from the terrorist attacks during his administration. This week’s events are a reminder that his failure was not aggression but passivity. We demanded security over liberty, and he complied.
Before the smoke of Boston, most Americans had concluded the nation overreacted to the 2011 attacks. The Patriot Act and numerous other infringements of our liberties, the Iraq War, Guantanamo, the trillions of dollars spent, were — we thought — examples of governmental overreach. Benjamin Franklin’s quote became a mainstay of both the left and the right: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Once again, our temptation is to embrace safety over liberty. Once again, we feel the temptation to lash out at Muslims. While most of us condemn torture, who would not make an exception for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who remains alive and in custody as I write this? To protect ourselves, we need to know if he is part of a terrorist cell. Bring out the water board.
There are no simple answers. Maybe the lesson of the Boston Marathon bombing is that security does trump liberty, that the U.S. response to the more dramatic tragedy of September 2001 was appropriate. Maybe profiling Muslims is a reasonable response to a real threat.
One thing is certain, though. If we are to avoid the path we took after Sept. 11, 2001, we must get a grip. Whether the Tsarnaev brothers turn out to be Muslim extremists or Chechen separatists or violent and disgruntled miscreants, we must take a breath. Elected officials will respond to our demands. If we demand more security and less liberty, we will get it. If we blame Muslims for our terror, national policy will shift to assuage our fears.
We’ve been through this before. Will we handle it differently this time?