With the hysterical reactions to the attacks in Boston, the government has done more harm to America’s freedom than any terrorist could have imagined in his sweetest dreams.
If there are no new unexpected insights, no great lessons are to be learned from the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, better known as the “Boston Bombers.” We can consider their family history in conflict-riddled Dagestan or make the deadly attraction of Islamic radicalization a topic of discussion again. But I doubt that that will help us.
The older brother, Tamerlan, who died in an exchange of gunfire with the police, seems to correspond perfectly to the character type that Hans Magnus Enzensberger named the “radical loser.” And his younger brother, Dzhokhar, who is recovering from his gunshot wounds and awaiting trial, appears to have been a pitiful follower who acted much more out of brotherly love than out of deep conviction.
The radical loser is the type of young man who sees himself as the victim of an unfeeling and cold world. For some, this harsh feeling of rejection, shared by many young people, turns into an urgent wish for vengeance. Like Samson in the temple at Gaza, they want to destroy themselves in a public act of violence and take as many people as possible with them.
A Ready-Made Cause for Death
This final act can be triggered by any number of things: the rejection of a lover, the failure to get a job. Tamerlan, a talented boxer, was denied the chance to become a champion because he was not an American citizen. Radical Islamism offered him a ready-made cause for death.
More interesting and distressing was the reaction in the U.S. to the attacks in Boston, in which three people died and 264 were injured. Even after the death of Tamerlan, when his brother Dzhokhar was wounded and the only known accomplice on the run, Boston authorities locked down the whole city.
Public transportation was halted, trains into and out of the city were stopped, and citizens were instructed to stay at home. Until the surviving bomber was found, Boston was reduced to a ghost town.
The Modern City Is Vulnerable
If two disturbed young men with homemade fertilizer bombs and pressure cookers have such an effect on an American city, one can only imagine how tempting this example must seem to other radical losers, much less radical groups. It shows how vulnerable a modern city can be if its decision makers lose their nerve.
The overblown reaction of the authorities — and large parts of the press — was all the more strange considering that it was happening at just the same time when the U.S. Senate had rejected a bill that would have made it more difficult for assassins and mentally ill people to get weapons and prohibited private persons from purchasing weapons that would normally only be used in war.
It appears as if American society could tolerate a society in which school children and other innocents are regularly murdered by the mentally ill with freely available weapons. If, however, the attacks are perpetrated by persons designated as “terrorists,” collective hysteria breaks out.
Man Can Get Accustomed Even to Terror
This probably has to do with what people are accustomed to. The Spanish were so accustomed to violent attacks by the Basque separatists that the murder of 191 people by Islamic extremists in 2004 was accepted with notable cold-bloodedness.
When 52 people fell victim to a suicide bombing in the London subway, the Brits reacted with relative calm, after having been subjected to the years-long terroristic violence of the Irish. Like the Spanish, they were accustomed to it. The Americans are not, despite the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even worse is that some Republican senators, among them luminaries like John McCain, called for revoking civil rights from U.S. citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and placing him before a military tribunal as an enemy combatant, as if the 19-year-old were a soldier at war against America.
The Great Need of a Common Enemy
Exaggerated fear of foreign enemies has always been part of the U.S.’ political landscape. The “nation of immigrants” was traditionally seen as a refuge from danger. The land of the free shouldn’t be able to be touched by the evil outside. When this happens anyway — at Pearl Harbor or on Sept. 2001 — all hell breaks loose.
A further factor could be the need of a common enemy in a country whose citizens originate from so many different cultures and traditions. The besiegement of the communists or Islamists gives the people a feeling of belonging.
Defending the nation against dangerous outsiders — and their domestic representatives, whether real or imagined — presents a powerful unifying element.
The Politics of Fear
Such ties can be useful or even necessary in times of war. But the politics of fear itself is a danger to the U.S. The goal of political terrorists groups like al-Qaida consists of provoking retaliation and thereby achieving maximum publicity for their cause. As common criminals, the members of such groups could not do this.
By claiming to be soldiers in the war against the greatest military power in the world, they gain sympathy and supporters among the radical losers and the disillusioned.
Former President George W. Bush once explained terrorism as the expression of hatred for American freedom. But when terrorism leads to the torture of prisoners, more and more police surveillance, and official threats to civil rights, or if a crime of two young immigrants results in the lockdown of an entire city, then the government is harming America’s freedom more than any terrorist could have imagined in his sweetest dreams.