Stephen M. Walt

On the Boston Marathon attacks

I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday’s attack at the Boston Marathon — to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday’s attack at the Boston Marathon — to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have been in the wrong place when some evildoer planted a senseless bomb. 

For the rest of us, however, there are already lessons to be drawn. For me, the most important thing to remember is that such events, however vivid, shocking, and tragic, do not in fact pose a mortal threat to our society and our freedoms, unless we let them. For as horrible as yesterday’s events were, Americans are not in fact at greater risk than they were before. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence on American soil in the past, and there will be in the future. Yet the odds that any American will in fact be affected by terrorist violence of any sort remains astronomically small. And so long as future incidents do not involve weapons of mass destruction — and especially nuclear weapons — then their impact will be limited to a few unlucky individuals who tragically happen to caught in terrorism’s web through no fault of their own.

Thus far, the response to this outrage has been encouraging. For the most part, people have refrained from ill-informed speculation about responsibility. Boston and Massachusetts officials responded intelligently, swiftly, and calmly to yesterday’s events, and ordinary citizens at the scene reacted in ways that makes one proud of our common humanity. If the perpetrators were seeking to sow confusion and panic or trigger some sort of massive over-reaction, they failed. I am confident we will eventually find out who did this and that they will eventually be brought to justice. 

There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven by their own beliefs or demons to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures — as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday’s race — and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal’s motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.

But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America — or the rest of the world — is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.

I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday’s attack at the Boston Marathon — to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have been in the wrong place when some evildoer planted a senseless bomb. 

For the rest of us, however, there are already lessons to be drawn. For me, the most important thing to remember is that such events, however vivid, shocking, and tragic, do not in fact pose a mortal threat to our society and our freedoms, unless we let them. For as horrible as yesterday’s events were, Americans are not in fact at greater risk than they were before. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence on American soil in the past, and there will be in the future. Yet the odds that any American will in fact be affected by terrorist violence of any sort remains astronomically small. And so long as future incidents do not involve weapons of mass destruction — and especially nuclear weapons — then their impact will be limited to a few unlucky individuals who tragically happen to caught in terrorism’s web through no fault of their own.

Thus far, the response to this outrage has been encouraging. For the most part, people have refrained from ill-informed speculation about responsibility. Boston and Massachusetts officials responded intelligently, swiftly, and calmly to yesterday’s events, and ordinary citizens at the scene reacted in ways that makes one proud of our common humanity. If the perpetrators were seeking to sow confusion and panic or trigger some sort of massive over-reaction, they failed. I am confident we will eventually find out who did this and that they will eventually be brought to justice. 

There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven by their own beliefs or demons to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures — as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday’s race — and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal’s motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.

But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America — or the rest of the world — is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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