Terror in Boston

By Erica Chenoweth and Joseph K. Young

Regardless of intention, today’s explosions in Boston have managed to terrorize.

Here are Erica’s initial observations:

  1. The blasts were near-simultaneous and co-located in a way that was sure to inflict maximal damage. One cannot necessarily assume intentionality from actions, but in this case the clear consequences of the bombs’ placement was to kill or wound many people — runners, spectators, medical personnel, law enforcement, and journalists alike. The three identified explosive devices near the finish line (two of which detonated, one of which did not) would have trapped people between the blasts, maximizing the casualties and creating a sense of being out of control.
  2. The timing of the bombing — in broad daylight at the end of a symbolic event on a symbolic day — suggest that the perpetrators may have wanted to make use of the spectacle and media frenzy to increase the impact of the incident beyond the immediate casualties. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, though spectacular incidents like this may draw multiple claims of responsibility, as different groups may attempt to take “credit” for the mayhem.
  3. The immediate effects of the bombings are numerous, involving dozens of physical casualties and psychological injuries; the mobilization of city, county, state, and federal resources in Boston, New York, Washington DC, and elsewhere; and the interruption of peoples’ daily routines as they tune into the news and/or attempt to contact their loved ones. If the intention was to terrorize and inflict harm, then the bombings were certainly a tactical success. Importantly, though, tactical success does not necessarily equal strategic success. Indeed, research has shown that incidents like this rarely translate into political gains for the perpetrators. Instead, they tend to increase support for incumbents, regardless of who is responsible. In other words, this incident may have been a costly signal, but it probably won’t pay.

And here are Joe’s initial thoughts:

  1. We are still in the fog of war. The early reports during these events are almost always wrong. Today, far-fetched reports have claimed that a Saudi national has been detained, that this was an FBI sponsored attack, that the attack involved Iran, or that it was connected to the Boston Police’s planned controlled explosion. We will only understand the event through careful police work, research, and determination. Immediately after the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, rumors over Jihadi involvement spread and became conventional wisdom. And Richard Jewell was initially blamed for the Atlanta Olympics bombing.
  2. The most probable story relates to the timing. April 19, 1985 — federal agents arrested the leaders of the Covenant, Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, an extremist group in Arkansas. April 19, 1993 — federal agents chose to lay siege to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. April 19, 1995 — Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City. All three of these events dealt with gun rights and federal agencies confronting groups with extreme beliefs on the issue. It is Tax Day and Patriot Day, a celebration of the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War. Controversial gun legislation is currently being debated in Congress. While I would certainly advise caution in pointing fingers, this is an important time of the year for people with radical views on the federal government and gun rights. With that said, our friend, Anthony Lemieux, reminded us that in the movie Four Lions hapless Jihadis attempted a similar attack against the London marathon. Hopefully, the fog of war will dissipate, and we will have clear answers soon.
  1. Thank you for the succinct summary and analysis. I wish Political Violence at a Glance didn’t have to exist at all, but, living in reality of today, I’m happy to have found this blog. Best of wishes to Boston from here on the West Coast.

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