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Innocents Abroad

Struggling to Understand

A makeshift memorial in Copley Square photographed after Boylston Street in Boston was reopened, just over a week after the Boston Marathon bombing. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A makeshift memorial in Copley Square photographed after Boylston Street in Boston was reopened, just over a week after the Boston Marathon bombing. (Boghosian for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The pain and trauma of the Boston bombings belong to the victims of the attacks and their families. I am not one of these people, and I was not in Boston during the attacks—but for a variety for reasons the event still feels quite personal for me, and I am struggling to come to grips with what lessons we should draw from the tragedy.

Tens of thousands have lost their lives in Syria this year, and terrorist attacks of this sort, which intentionally seek to kill and maim civilians, have been a common occurrence in Israel. However, this sort of attack on an American city still stirs the conscience here. Is it a gentle reminder that we should be less indifferent to violence overseas or a harsh commentary on how detached Americans are from the world beyond our borders?

Thankfully, the two suspects have been captured or killed, and so their spree of violence has come to an end. They failed to change the way Americans live their lives, but they no doubt succeeded in causing hurt, anger and even fear. A handful of people lay dead and over two hundred have been injured, including a number of runners and spectators who tragically lost their legs.

I was stunned to discover that the Tsarnaev brothers lived on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the same block where I used to live as a graduate student at MIT. My apartment was across the street and just two doors down from them, and for all I know I probably said hello to the would-be murderers on the sidewalk. I simply do not know what to make of this strange fact.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev previously came to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, so why was he not watched more carefully? Apparently, his foreign travel back from Dagestan may not have been tracked by the US government due to a simple clerical error. What more can we do to protect people from terrorism if we cannot overcome run-of-the-mill bureaucratic bumbling?

Although improvements in technology helped the bombers learn how to deploy the tools of mass violence, such advancements also helped the authorities track the Tsarnaevs down. The proliferation of video cameras helped the authorities to confirm the brothers’ role in the bombings, and police were finally able to locate them in Watertown by tracking the cell phone of the man whose car they had stolen.

I have to wonder: which vision of technology and our future will prevail: the dystopian world exemplified by the bombers, or the hopeful vision of technology exemplified by my alma mater, MIT?

Despite claims by the brothers’ aunt that Tamerlan “was not a religious fanatic,” his positions did set him apart from the moderate Muslim mainstream in the United States. Twice, he had engaged in heated fights with congregants at a local mosque, berating them for suggesting observant Muslims can celebrate civil holidays such as Thanksgiving or that the Prophet Muhammad exemplified the tolerant values and peaceful activism demonstrated by civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

But given that the brothers did not exhibit more obvious signs of turning toward violence, what could have been done to raise the alarm? We do not want to be the sort of society that profiles peaceful people on the basis of their religious beliefs. Recent vigilante attacks against innocent people in Massachusetts and New York are especially worrying in this regard. President Obama was right to speak out against this sort of hateful vigilantism, just as he was right to condemn the hate that motivated the brothers to launch their horrible attacks.

The US media had a difficult week, with outlets such as Fox News, CNN and the New York Times getting ahead of the facts at certain points. However, the New York Post deserves special condemnation. Not only did it misreport the death toll from the attacks, but the paper labeled innocent Arab–Americans, including one who was actually injured by the bombing, as likely attackers. Such errors are not just silly, they can ruin lives.

The Tsarnaevs came to the United States seeking asylum from a region torn by war. Will their turn toward violence derail bipartisan immigration reform in the US or harm the cause of other prospective refugees and asylees? If the brothers could not fit in in Cambridge—a diverse place where we pride ourselves on inclusiveness—what more can we do to help other people overcome the traumas of immigration?

The fact that the surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is not going to be tried as an enemy combatant also seems like an encouraging sign. Does this mean that the fever of the Bush years has finally passed, that Americans are now confident enough to stand by our civilian legal system? Or does the mere occurrence of these attacks mean that President Bush was right, and America is engaged in an ongoing war against radical Islamist terrorism?

In a practical sense, perhaps the most vexing question to be answered in the weeks ahead will be whether these young men truly acted on their own, as claimed or if they were influenced by a larger terrorist network. But one certainty that will remain with us going forward is the heroism with which first responders and ordinary people responded to these attacks, putting themselves in danger to help others who were hurt and in need.

As I struggle to make sense of the Boston attacks, I keep coming back to the fact that my fiancée grew up near one of the toughest sections of the Boston marathon course: an uphill stretch of road known as Heartbreak Hill. As a child, she and her family would stand by that road to hand out water and to cheer on the runners so they would not lose hope before this daunting leg of the race.

People in the United States remain heartbroken over these attacks. But as the steadfastness of ordinary people should remind us, nothing these attackers could do is going to make us lose hope.

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David Andrew Weinberg
Dr. David Andrew Weinberg is a non-resident fellow with UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. He previously served as a professional staff member for Mideast affairs at the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the US House of Representatives.

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