America declares war on two losers

Why did the most powerful military nation on Earth freak out over a 19-year-old idiot in a backward baseball cap?

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics USA

Soon after the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, pundits on the left and right started speculating about the culprits. Both projected their prejudices and fantasies, in the hope that the identity of the attacker would in itself discredit their political opponents. As it happens, both got it wrong.

Liberals were hoping the bombers would turn out to be right-wing, Tea Party-loving nutcases. Dina Temple-Raston of National Public Radio ventured: ‘April is a big month for anti-government, and right-wing, individuals. There’s the Columbine anniversary. There’s Hitler’s birthday. There’s the Oklahoma City bombing. There’s the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.’ David Sirota in Salon blurted out: ‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.’ Sirota turned out to be correct – the bombers were white (Caucasians, literally) and Americans (one a naturalised citizen, the other a long-time resident) – but clearly not in the way he and other liberals had hoped for.

Conservatives had also leapt to a conclusion – that the perpetrators were Islamic terrorists. The day after the bombs went off, the Wall Street Journal referenced the botched car-bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad in New York’s Times Square in 2010, and warned: ‘The Boston bombing is above all a reminder of the continuing need for heightened defences against terror threats. As the years since 9/11 without a successful homeland attack increased, the temptation was to forget how vulnerable the US is, and to conclude that the worst is over.’ Did conservatives guess correctly? Well, many thought so when it was revealed that the bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, were Muslims, but two brothers with a family background in Chechnya certainly wasn’t expected or predicted in advance.

Emboldened by discovering the bombers’ ties with Islam, conservatives have been the most vocal in the aftermath of last Friday’s manhunt, eagerly slotting the bombers into an old motif: the global war against Islamist terrorism. Michael Mukasey, former attorney general under George W Bush, announced: ‘Make no mistake, it was jihad.’ Republican congressmen Peter King and Lindsey Graham rushed to claim that the Tsarnaevs are ‘enemy combatants’ (who can be denied legal rights), rather than common criminals.

But the evidence that the Tsarnaevs are soldiers in a war is lacking, to put it mildly. They are Muslims, their family is ethnically Chechnyan, and they watched and posted a few jihadist videos. The older one, Tamerlan, spent six months overseas in 2012, and was considered suspicious by Russian intelligence and America’s FBI. That’s about it. No evidence of being part of a coordinated effort, nor of having membership in a group like al-Qaeda. It seems pretty clear that the Tsarnaevs were the ones who were responsible for setting the bombs off, and represent no one but themselves.

Slap the label ‘global terrorism’ on a violent act, and all sorts of fearful images and associations are generated, but the reality of the Tsarnaevs was much more mundane. How can anyone take the two brothers as serious ‘combatants’? Their bomb was crude (gunpowder and metal parts in a pressure cooker), the target site was ‘soft’ and not terribly spectacular in symbolic value, and the number killed by the bombs (three), while deeply tragic, was not exceptional when compared with death rates in American cities like Chicago, which averaged about three homicides every two days last year.

The brothers’ amateurism was revealed during the events of Thursday evening, when they bragged to the owner of the car they hijacked: ‘Did you hear about the Boston explosion? I did that.’ They then stole $45 from the driver and, failing to get cash out of his ATM (and getting caught on the bank camera in the process), robbed a small convenience store. Then, following a shootout with police, one brother drove over the other’s body as he escaped. Not exactly the most organised or well-funded of global conspiracies.

Amid all of the political ‘analysis’ from so-called terror experts, the Tsarnaevs’ uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, put it simply and best: the brothers were ‘losers’. Tamerlan, the dropout from community college, said: ‘I don’t have a single American friend.’ His brother Dzhokhar was, as his fellow students repeatedly said, ‘a stoner’, who didn’t say much. The young men were far more shaped by life in America than the Northern Caucasus – both had lived in the US for more than a decade – and they expressed an alienation from American society. Indeed, their nihilistic act had much in common with mass school shootings by young men in recent times (Columbine, Aurora, Newtown) – that is, it was seemingly motiveless and suicidal violence undertaken by young males.

While the authorities and the media are searching frantically for proof of the brothers’ motives, they miss that this search itself is revealing. The Tsarnaevs’ unwillingness to claim responsibility or provide a reason highlights that this was not a political or ideological act. The bombings were really an end in themselves, an attention-seeking temper tantrum by disaffected youth.

Seen in this light, it is clear that the US authorities massively overreacted to the suspects. In an unprecedented move, the city of Boston and nearby suburbs were placed in a ‘lockdown’ last Friday as police conducted their hunt for Dzhokhar. About a million people were ordered to stay in their homes, all public transport was cancelled, public facilities were shut. SWAT teams and armoured vehicles roamed the streets, and armed police searched house to house. Similar restrictions were not implemented in the past: not after 9/11; not during the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, DC; nor following the shootings in Fort Hood in 2009. It was amazing: a million people forced to hunker down in their homes for an entire day, all because one teenager in a backward baseball cap was on the loose.

Not only was the lockdown a restriction of people’s freedom of movement – it was also ineffective. Only after the lockdown was lifted was Dzhokhar found, hiding in a boat behind a house – by a member of the public, not the police. But most of all, the lockdown spread a terrible message of fear throughout the city of Boston. While the people of Boston showed great solidarity and resiliency on the day of the explosions, the authorities during the manhunt were encouraging the opposite response: the message was ‘we’re under siege and vulnerable’. Indeed, the marathon bombers sought to scare people and disrupt everyday life, and in establishing a lockdown in Boston, the authorities were giving them what they wanted.

During the manhunt, the Obama administration released photos of the president and his top security officials meeting in the White House Situation Room. They clearly wanted to demonstrate that the president was in command. But it was truly absurd: the country with the strongest military on Earth was being brought to a standstill by a couple of losers. The official overreaction will surely encourage other disgruntled nobodies to emulate the Tsarnaev brothers and launch a similar attack. They now know that if they do, they will get the full attention of the President of the United States.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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