Date Published:Apr 23, 2013
Full TextHow could terror breed in the heart of a city so inclusive?
Just as Delhi and Bangalore are my Indian homes, Boston is my American home. I have lived here for 16-17 years. Norfolk Street, where the Boston bombers lived, is only a couple of miles away from my apartment. MIT, where the Tsarnaev brothers killed a policeman, is my alma mater. Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where the younger Tsarnaev brother studied, is across the street from Harvard University's Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, where I started my American career as a junior professor. Boylston Street, where the bombs went off at the marathon finish line, and the nearby Copley Square are the commercial heart of Boston. I have friends in Watertown, where the younger Tsarnaev hid in a boat before being captured by the police. Such intimate associations generate sadness about the events last week, but they also allow me to formulate some puzzles and provide proximate, if not conclusive, answers.
If Washington is the political capital of the US, New York the financial capital and Los Angeles the entertainment capital, Boston is America's intellectual capital. Universities, colleges and labs liberally dot the landscape. Also, Boston's history is special. The American revolution against the British commenced here; the Boston marathon, so violently disrupted on April 15, is on Patriot's Day.
Cambridge, part of Boston, perhaps has more foreigners per capita than any other town in the English-speaking world. Only New York and greater San Francisco, comprising Berkeley and Stanford, could compete in the US, and London abroad. The Tsarnaev brothers, especially the older sibling, felt lost and discovered destructive anger, in what is one of the most international and inclusive towns of the US. Here is what Cambridge superintendent of schools Jeffrey Young says: "We [Cambridge] are an inclusive community, guided by our shared values... That may be one reason it is so hard to understand how this could happen in a place like Cambridge."
Boston is also known for its legendary sports teams. The Boston Marathon is part of a great sporting tradition that iconises Patriot's Day and Boston's rebellion against the British in 1775. Going back to 1897, it is the world's oldest annual marathon, and currently one of the six annual marathon majors across the world. An estimated half a million people watch the race. It is a day of celebration.
This year, the celebration morphed into a nightmare. President Obama's words evocatively—and brilliantly—summoned the meaning of the event and tragedy: "On Monday morning, the sun rose over Boston. The sunlight glistened off the State House Dome. In the commons, in the public garden, spring was in bloom... In Hopkinton, runners laced up their shoes and set out on a 26.2-mile test of dedication and grit and the human spirit... It was a beautiful day to be in Boston, a day that explains why a poet once wrote that this town is not just a capital, not just a place. Boston, he said, is the perfect state of grace... And then, in an instant, the day's beauty was shattered. A celebration became a tragedy.
Even when our heart aches, we summon the strength that maybe we didn't even know we had, and we finish the race. On that toughest mile, just when we think that we've hit a wall, someone will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall... And that's what the perpetrators of such senseless violence, these small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build... and think somehow that makes them important—that's what they don't understand."
The Boston bombings raise two big questions. The first is this: If nearly all big acts of terrorism, especially jihadi terrorism, have been thwarted in the US since 2001, how could this one escape the net of intelligence?
Ray Kelly, New York City's highly respected police chief, says that since 9/11, 16 terrorist attempts in New York have been foiled, including one aimed at the Times Square and another at the subway, the city's transport lifeline. In Virginia, Colorado and Connecticut, some attempts at mass murder have succeeded, but they were not jihad-inspired. Indeed, only one major act of jihadi terror has been successfully executed since 2001. At the Fort Hood army station in Texas, Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 soldiers, apparently under the influence of a radical cleric.
Kelly has no doubt that luck has played a role, but he also says that the New York Police Department regularly consults with the local leaders of Muslim neighbourhoods. The police-citizen interaction has been very helpful. In Boston, too, the younger Tsarnaev was apprehended only after the lockdown was lifted. One of the homeowners noticed a pool of blood on his boat, lodged in the backyard, and informed the police. The almost day-long police search did not yield the younger Tsarnaev.
It also appears that bigger acts are easier to foil, while smaller plots can remain under the radar. The technology used in making smaller bombs is so well known and bomb-making manuals are so easily available, online and otherwise, that low-grade bombs can be easily produced by one or two people. This is the most chilling larger implication of the events last week. Unless proven otherwise, the Tsarnaev brothers were spiders without a spider web. They did not even have an exit plan after executing terror. A networked terrorist would have left the US, or been closer to an airport.
The second big question that the Boston bombs raise is deeper. What explains that some of those who grew up in the US, went through American institutions, lived in inclusive multi-ethnic towns, even took the oath of citizenship as the younger Tsarnaev did, would resort to terrorist violence on US soil?
The fundamental premise of America as a nation of immigrants is that, regardless of ethnicity, race or religion, everyone can be American. There may be teething troubles in adjustment, experienced by new immigrants and/ or caused by older settlers, but in the end, freedom and equality as the core principles of nationhood, education in public schools and the lure of opportunities can build a strong and cohesive nation out of America's many diversities. Do the Boston bombs, by any chance, show that being a religious Muslim and being an American might not go together?
It would be analytically premature to rush to this conclusion. And the fact that, unlike the reaction to 9/11, America is not even debating this issue shows how far the US has come.
The Tsarnaev brothers appear to be part of a dysfunctional family and horribly complicated national homeland politics. According to scholars of Chechnya, every fifth Chechen is in exile; so deep are the national wounds of wars and forced migration. The Tsarnaev parents kept going back and forth between the US and their homeland, finding home nowhere. The older Tsarnaev brother came to the US when he was already a teenager, the age normally viewed as the hardest for adjustment to a new and unfamiliar land. If, as is widely reported, he could not make a single American friend even after living a decade in one of the most inclusive towns of the US, it says something about his own psychological difficulties. The plunge into jihadi ideology might be a consequence of such difficulties.
If so, the fundamental cause of the embrace of terror would not be a turn towards jihadi Islam, but a psychological crisis caused by the inability to adjust to a new land and the virtual impossibility of return to the homeland. Acts of terror must indeed be punished, but we need more evidence before we arrive at grand conclusions about Islam's incompatibility with the US.