The lockdown in Boston (updated)

I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I’ve been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I've been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Blogging during a rapidly developing story can be dicey, but here are a few quick thoughts.

As I tweeted a couple of hours ago, knowing the suspects' origins doesn't tell you what their motives were. Let's assume that the two Tsarnaev brothers really did it (which is certainly where the publically available evidence seems to point). The fact that they were of Chechen origin raises various possibilities, but at this point in time we have no idea if their actions were inspired by Chechen nationalism, by anger at America, by some weird personal animosity or desire for glory, by religion or by something entirely different. The man who conducted the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung Hui-Cho, was a South Korean national, but his actions stemmed from mental illness rather than his national or ethnic identity. Until we know more, inferences about motive based on the suspects' origins are little more than guesses.  

Whatever their motives were, it certainly doesn't appear to be some sort of well-oiled terrorist plot. As one tweeter I read noted, a sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organization doesn't try to stick up a 7-11 a couple of days after the attack. To see in this tragedy some rebirth of al Qaeda or "terrorists of global reach" seems misplaced, at least based on what we know now.

I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I’ve been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Blogging during a rapidly developing story can be dicey, but here are a few quick thoughts.

As I tweeted a couple of hours ago, knowing the suspects’ origins doesn’t tell you what their motives were. Let’s assume that the two Tsarnaev brothers really did it (which is certainly where the publically available evidence seems to point). The fact that they were of Chechen origin raises various possibilities, but at this point in time we have no idea if their actions were inspired by Chechen nationalism, by anger at America, by some weird personal animosity or desire for glory, by religion or by something entirely different. The man who conducted the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung Hui-Cho, was a South Korean national, but his actions stemmed from mental illness rather than his national or ethnic identity. Until we know more, inferences about motive based on the suspects’ origins are little more than guesses.  

Whatever their motives were, it certainly doesn’t appear to be some sort of well-oiled terrorist plot. As one tweeter I read noted, a sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organization doesn’t try to stick up a 7-11 a couple of days after the attack. To see in this tragedy some rebirth of al Qaeda or "terrorists of global reach" seems misplaced, at least based on what we know now.

But as I suggested a couple of days ago, that observation doesn’t change our situation very much. Given the nature of destructive technology — in this case, fairly primitive bombs — and the fact that there will always be a few people with a destructive agenda of some kind, there are always going to be senseless acts of violence. Governments and society at large can and should take reasonable measures to reduce that risk — and yes, a saner approach to gun regulation would help — but 100 percent safety isn’t possible. Fortunately, the odds that any of us will ever experience a direct encounter with this sort of violence are still vanishingly small. Even if you’re a police officer or a soldier, the odds are in your favor. For the rest of us, we are still remarkably safe by historic standards. And Americans are much, much safer than people in many other places.

And remember, four people have now died in Boston (not counting the dead suspect), but some fifteen people died in Texas when a fertilizer plant blew up. The world is not foolproof. Bad things do happen. That bedrock reality is not even interesting; what matters is that we recognize dangers for what they are, calibrate them properly, and respond to them intelligently.

P.S.: Continued kudos to the law enforcement agencies dealing with this problem, who identified the suspects with remarkable speed and have handled an extremely difficult situation with calm but decisive measures. Cable TV? Not so much.

Update:  As I’ve watched today’s events and pondered further, I’ve become convinced that public officials in Boston erred by locking down the City and most surrounding suburbs for an entire day.  There may be a good explanation for this decision, but it hasn’t been provided yet.  The economic cost has been enormous (by one estimate about $1 billion), and it sets a worrisome precedent if a 19 year old fugitive can paralyze an entire metropolitan region.  We didn’t shut down DC when the snipers were operating there, and we didn’t shut down Los Angeles when a renegade and heavily armed police officer was a fugitive.  This response also belies our insistence that we’re tough and we won’t be intimidated.  On the contrary: we look skittish and scared.   I suspect public officials were deathly afraid of further violence, and of being blamed later for not taking precautions.   We’ll see.   But I worry that potential copycats will be inspired rather than deterred by the combination of media frenzy and governmental overreaction. 

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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