The terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon in many ways played out along predictable lines: The bombers were foreign-born Islamic militants with an affinity for jihad, our law-enforcement and emergency medical personnel responded with the awesome speed and skill that we too often take for granted, Bostonians behaved with prudence and restraint while the manhunt unfolded, the media performed in the opposite fashion, and, rather than turn into the “Islamophobic” lynch mob of the Left’s fevered fantasies, the American public took a few days to raise millions of dollars to help care for victims of the attack. Terrorists always hope to awaken the worst in us, and Americans reliably disappoint them. In that sense, the American people act in the spirit of Saint Francis: always preaching the blessings of liberty and prosperity, sometimes using words.
The country’s leadership has performed less admirably.
Many acts of terrorism are entirely beyond foresight or prevention. The Boston Marathon bombing was not one of them. Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been investigated by the FBI in 2011 after the Russian government flagged him as a potentially dangerous Islamic radical. Since that time, Tsarnaev all but shouted his intentions from the rooftops, going so far as to make a public YouTube playlist labeled “terrorists,” helpfully published under his own name. Between his domestic-violence arrest in 2009, Russian warnings that he intended to link up with overseas extremists, his subsequent travel abroad (including, according to his father, a trip to Chechnya, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and the scene of a bloody insurgency), and his recent ejection from a local mosque for disruptive public outbursts and behavior described by one member of his community as “crazy,” there was plenty of reason to be keeping an eye on Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s flagging by the Russians is the reason that his application for citizenship was denied, according to the New York Times. But apparently, it was not enough to keep him on the counterterrorism radar. Contrast that with the performance of the New York Police Department, which has had all manner of unfair abuse heaped upon it for its surveillance of possible terrorist threats originating in the city’s Muslim community — for doing its job, in short. The Obama administration, which leans too heavily upon its favorite tactic of patrolling faraway crossroads with drones, would do better to place more emphasis on human intelligence.
There are of course political aspects to these failings. The Obama administration has promised to remain vigilant for the threat of “right-wing” terrorism. In the wake of the attacks, former Obama operative David Axelrod suggested that the attacks were linked to Tax Day, and Obama’s camp followers in the media were quick to speculate that anti-government militia groups, neo-Nazis, right-wing fringe outfits — anybody but radical Muslims, in fact — were behind the attack. Liberal commentator David Sirota went so far as to publicly offer his fervent hopes that the bomber was “a white American.” Once the identity of the bombers became public, Mr. Axelrod et al. became strangely circumspect.
Our nation’s singular focus on al-Qaeda in the wake of 9/11 should not distract us from the fact that Islamic radicalism is a multifaceted phenomenon, by no means limited to such now-familiar domains as the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. While highly organized terror networks remain the most significant threat, Islamic radicalism is highly diffused; there need be no Osama bin Laden masterminding every act of violence. But the Boston attack, like 9/11, is a reminder that while there are not always signs of a terrorist assault in the making, we will never see what signs there are unless we are looking.
The Chechnyan insurgency has never loomed very large on our national radar. But the jihadist campaign is a campaign against Western civilization. There may be local targets — Israel for the Arabs, Russia for the Chechens — but the jihad is never limited to targets in the immediate environment. Simply put, every jihad is a threat to the United States, regardless of the particulars of its origin. That this jihad found instruments that were not as disciplined or creative as al-Qaeda or the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — there is a whiff of Klebold and Harris about the Tsarnaev brothers — is no reason to take it less seriously. If anything, the mutation of the terrorist threat from a handful of centralized radical organizations into a motley collection of militants and misfits with varying degrees of ability and sophistication means that we must be more vigilant.
As always, intelligence remains the most precious commodity. The elder Tsarnaev brother is dead. The younger is in custody, and it is unlikely that he will ever set foot outside of the succession of jail cells and courtrooms that await him, whether he is treated as an ordinary murderer or, in the event that he is meaningfully tied to al-Qaeda, as an enemy combatant. Determining whether the Tsarnaev brothers were in fact lone wolves or part of a wider enterprise is at the moment our most pressing priority. We should be in no particular hurry to turn him over to the criminal-justice system until our national-security questions have been satisfactorily answered. He can always be remanded to the criminal-justice system for prosecution at a later date.
President Obama and his administration have been wildly inconsistent on the issue of Islamist terrorism. After running a campaign based on abominating the Bush administration’s approach to counterterrorism, the Obama administration took in hand practically every implement from George W. Bush’s toolbox and a few more of its own design. The hated detention center at Guantanamo Bay remains well stocked with the worst the world has to offer, and the senator who was shocked by the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed became the president who signed off on more permanent means of dealing with Islamic militants. But at the same time, he remains a victim of, if we may borrow a phrase from Andrew C. McCarthy, willful blindness on the nature of Islamic supremacists. The attack on soldiers at Fort Hood remains risibly classified as an incidence of “workplace violence” rather than a sneak attack from the Islamic radical Nidal Hassan. When it comes to articulating a national understanding of the threat of Islamic radicalism and a national response to it, Barack Obama is a good deal less articulate than George W. Bush.
Episodes such as this always are studies in contrasts. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officer Richard Donohue Jr. was shot while in pursuit of Tsarnaev, and grievously wounded: His heart stopped, and he lost all of the blood in his body. He was saved by 21st-century medicine, wounded in a war with 8th-century savagery. But not every life was saved, nor could they be, which is why it remains imperative that we continue to invest our resources and creativity in the project of stopping these attacks before they happen. The architects of the Boston bombing, like the architects of 9/11, are motivated by a remorseless malice that cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, or bought off. But it can be defeated — in Watertown or Waziristan, in whatever shadow it hides, in whatever cave it retreats into.