The United States has had only limited experience with these attacks,
whether foreign or domestic. While the Newtown massacre was a reminder
that America is no stranger to homegrown gun violence, bombs designed to
shock as well as kill are rarer. In fact, only in the past 50 years has
American society slowly adjusted to the types of theatrical violence
that the Boston bombing represented.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, repeated Cuban hijackings of U.S.
planes led to the first installments of security layers at airports,
including metal detectors. In 1993, the World Trade Center was shaken by
a bomb detonated in one of its parking garages, killing six and
wounding 1,000. In 1995, the Murrah office building in Oklahoma City
was blown up, killing 168. And the September 11th death tally was nearly
Each of these episodes changed daily life for everyone, and none more
so than 9/11. From intensive security in many office buildings to much
more intensive screening at airports, from a vastly expanded
surveillance network of electronic communications to cameras in urban
areas (which have allowed the Boston authorities to identify those
suspects), our lives have been changed. The response to the hijackings
of the 1970s seems almost quaint by today's standards: metal detectors.
Then, after several international episodes of bombs bringing planes
down, authorities demanded that luggage be scanned. Still, while flying
before 2001 was a hassle, it was not a security gantlet punctuated by
The American response to 9/11 was both brutally effective in
targeting those who did it - al-Qaeda and its state-sponsors, the
Taliban - and ham-handed. Today, we feel its effects most when we
travel, and the contrast between traveling from U.S. airports and other
airports is visceral. Other countries have adopted similar screening
techniques, but airports in Spain and Indonesia (both of which I flew
out of recently) don't exude the same degree of tension. In New Zealand,
domestic flights are still like America of the 1970s.
That screening may be a small price to pay, but the widespread
suspicion of Muslims has been a greater harm, as has the culture of
classification and secrecy that grew rapidly in Washington just as the
national security state did in the face of the Cold War.
The initial leap of some news outlets to Muslim-bait was also
quashed, as the appetite for such easy blame appears to be fading. As it
turns out, the two brothers are Muslim, but not Arab, not Iranian, and
not affiliated with any known organized group. That says no more about
Islam than Cuban hijackings in the 1970s said something about
Catholicism, or than Timothy McVeigh and his Oklahoma madness said
anything about Protestants.
In the reaction to the Boston bombings, we are seeing, at least for
now, an outburst of balanced outrage. I lived in Boston for seven years
in the 1990s. It was a tough place -- not threatening, just tough.
Removed from the years of busing that had brought out the us-versus-them
worst, it wasn't yet as gentrified and reborn after the
multibillion-dollar Big Dig. The DNA of cities takes a while to change,
and you could feel in the many reactions from Bostonians that they were
hurt, angry, and determined to catch whoever did it. But they were
equally determined to keep going without making too many compromises
about their lives. The city was shut down on Friday to make it easier
for law enforcement to do their job, but for a very specific reason, not
some generalized fear.