Was the Marathon Bombing Terrorism? A Defense of Agnostics

The perpetrators attempted a mass murder. But did they have a political aim? There's no harm in waiting for definitive proof.
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Was the Boston marathon bombing an act of terrorism? That is to say, was it violence or intimidation perpetrated for political aims? Or was it an attempt at mass murder more akin to the attack on Columbine High School or the Aurora, Colorado, shooting? It's possible that the prime motive of the perpetrators will turn out to be political or religious, Glenn Greenwald writes in The Guardian, adding that it's also possible that their motives will turn out to be something unexpected.

Andrew Sullivan vehemently disagrees. In "Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad," he labels Greenwald's agnosticism "left liberal self-parody." As Sullivan sees it, dismissing "the overwhelming evidence" that the attack was religiously motivated "is to be blind to an almost text-book case of Jihadist radicalization." He proceeds to lay out his reasons for reaching that conclusion.

Some of his observations are compelling.

Forced to bet right now on this case, I'd put my money on the jihadist explanation too. But here's the thing: None of us is forced to bet or speculate or parse incomplete evidence right now.

So why do it? Or if we just can't resist, why mock those with stronger willpower? As Kevin Drum puts it:

What we know about Tamerlan Tsarnaev is that he was (a) Muslim and (b) enraged about something. Was he enraged, a la Sayyid Qutb, about the sexual libertinism of American culture? Was he enraged about perceived American support for Russia against Chechen rebels? Was he enraged about American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Was he acting on orders from a foreign terrorist group? We don't know yet. Yes, there's plainly evidence of his growing Islamic extremism over the past three years. But if there's anything we've learned over the last week, it's that jumping to conclusions on this stuff is foolish. Our natural curiosity isn't a good enough reason to rush to judgment about Tsarnaev's motivations. Just wait.

There's no harm in it. We'll find out soon enough.

That's the part of Drum's post that I wish everyone in America would internalize, myself included: "Just wait. There's no harm in it." It's true. There really isn't any harm in waiting for more facts to emerge. Whereas much mischief is the result of weighing in too soon and getting things wrong.

You'd never know that from Sullivan's reaction. By declaring Greenwald's agnosticism "left liberal self-parody," he treats another writer's failure to quickly take a position on the "terrorism or not" question as if it's an example of a harmful ideological pathology that warrants a rebuke and mockery.

Why? What harm is Greenwald doing?

Since 9/11, there have been numerous instances in which jumping to conclusions based on imperfect information caused damage. Think of all the people who confidently insisted on the obviousness of Dr. Steven J. Hatfill's guilt, or Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction, or the notion that all Guantanamo Bay prisoners were "the worst of the worst." Has any harm ever been caused by a War on Terror pundit's stubborn insistence on delaying judgement?

I suppose, right after 9/11, it was theoretically possible, if highly improbable, that the United States would underreact to terrorism. As it turns out, America in many ways overreacted to it. We let the Bush Administration persuade us that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the homeland. We still submit en masse to naked body scans and intrusive genital pat-downs at the airport. Along with the dangerous terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, we detained a bunch of people who posed no threat to us without trial or charges, with no intention of ever releasing them.

We tortured.

Given all that, the habit of suspending judgment on matters of terrorism, pending a trial or a fuller airing of facts, doesn't seem like "left-liberal self parody" so much as a prudent, disciplined skepticism.

I am not always able to muster it myself.    

So I am grateful for reminders from cooler heads about how frequently what everyone "knows" to be true turns out to be false. At worst, those warnings delay the moment when an inevitable conclusion is reached, as I suspect will be true in this case. That delay is the worst thing that could happen. Is that so bad? At best, skeptics prevent wrongheaded assumptions from being treated as fact. That's why I am especially grateful for skeptics when I catch myself making assumptions.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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