The event “A Discussion: Causes, Responses, and Implications of the Boston Marathon Attacks” was surely a success, if the overflow of students and staff crowding into Higgins 300 at 8 p.m. last night, April 24, was any indication.
Eager audience members stood in the back or crouched on the stairs to listen to Professors Julian Bourg, Benjamin Braude, and Peter Krause discuss the terrorist attack in Boston on April 15. Students and staff quietly focused their attention on the professors as Professor Braude gave a brief introduction after a respectful moment of silence for the victims of the attack.
Professor Bourg of the history department started off the night by reconstructing the events of Marathon Monday. He charismatically described the beginning of the race, openly referencing “students getting their drink on” and excitedly cheering on runners until the midafternoon explosions. He related the overwhelming media coverage of the tragedy to our need to know who the perpetrators were as more time passed, as “a senseless act was given sense.”
Yet, his perspective was contrary to the many news outlets currently focusing on what motivated a young, 19-year-old American college student to participate in such violent acts. Bourg admitted we may never know what his motives were, and indeed the intentions of the terrorists hold little importance.
In fact, he argued, the meaning of the event was in how we chose to react. One response would be to demonize immigrants and Muslims to fit our stereotypes. The second, correct reaction, in his opinion, would be to focus on the good in humanity revealed on Marathon Monday, as crowds of police and ordinary citizens alike ran toward the explosions to save fellow human beings in danger.
He concluded with the many questions we are left with, including why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been characterized as a foreigner, the possibility of further Islamophobia, and the possible changes we can expect to see in American public spaces in the future.
Professor Braude, also of the history department, followed Bourg’s dangling questions with a plea to avoid the use of the term “terrorism” at all. This suggestion elicited no small amount of disbelieving murmurs in the audience.
However, Braude went on to explain that he thought of terrorism vocabulary as “emotionally-charged scare words that predict motives of attack.” Indeed, he pointed out, claiming an act of violence to be terrorism categorizes the motive immediately, with no speculation for other root problems present.
He introduced his concept of VAUC, or violence against unarmed civilians, as too vague to merely apply to terrorism. Indeed, he claimed the motive of terrorism merely gives power to the perpetrators and “gives justification that could perpetuate the acts” in the future. He pointed out that even this incident is being warped to fit the classic template of terrorists like Osama bin Laden, even when the perpetrators were of non-Arab descent, with one being a naturalized American citizen.
Braude went on to say that the idea of “the war on terrorism” sounds very good and noble, but the acts committed against “the enemy” by the U.S. could be categorized as equally as evil.
He concluded somberly, to many audience members quietly nodding their heads in agreement, that this event and other acts of terrorism in the U.S. “bring it into the 20th century,” meaning that much of the world suffers daily from various disasters, where Americans have, in the past, largely been spared.
Political science Professor Krause, recently featured on news channels for his expertise on the topics of terrorism and the Middle East, concluded the opening statements. He dispelled many exaggerations of the bombings by the media, first defining the parameters for terrorism. He explained the “Lone Wolf” motif of many terrorists, without affiliation to an organization. The problem, he said, was the difficulty in locating such perpetrators since they are often difficult to identify.
However, he invited us all to “take solace” in the fact that fewer than 100 deaths as a result of Lone Wolf attacks have occurred in the past decade, as the culprits are often incompetent. The Boston attackers were actually “unique in their ability to explode bombs,” though, he pointed out, they lacked organization in their tactics.
He then put over-hyped media fears of the threat of terrorism in perspective by pointing out that on average, there have been more American deaths by lightning strikes each year. He joked, “We don’t spend a lot of money combating lightning do we?” He wrapped up his statements by questioning the effectiveness of a citywide lockdown and a possible future push for domestic drones or public cameras, before opening up the floor to questions.
The professors received all questions respectfully, from questions about media coverage and Islamophobia to conspiracy theories about fake bomb drills. Students and staff alike were engaged as the professors spoke with brevity and expertise so anyone with uncertainty had plenty of floor time.
Topics covered further by the professors included London’s quicker recovery abilities after terrorist attacks because of experience with IRA attacks, as compared to the more vulnerable Boston; the role of social media in distorting information and starting rumors; whether the lockdown was successful since the suspect was not recovered until after its end, and only with public information.
They also answered questions about the possibility of the attack’s effect on immigration policy (negligible) and the demonization of an alleged American citizen (an unfortunate replacement of patriotism with excessive nationalism).
Overall, the professors most emphasized our need to continue to respect diversity, especially in welcoming immigrants into American society so as not to force them to turn to isolation or anti-Americanism, and understanding the power of misinformation.
Attendees discussed feeling “more informed” and “relieved” as they exited, glad for the chance for an open discussion of the implications of the Boston bombings in American society.
Photos by Alison Ricciato/Gavel Media.