The Boston Marathon Bombings

21:28 Sun 21 Apr 2013
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The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings made clear just how much the media—and apparently a substantial portion of the population—want to promote the notion that the “War on Terror” is a real war, that there’s a real and highly dangerous enemy, and that the US is engaged in a struggle where the nation itself is under threat.

Prior to the identification of the suspects, it seemed like many media figures were thinking, “please let it be Al Qaeda”—and that if if it had turned out to be some disgruntled middle-aged guy protesting IRS policies, they and a chunk of their audience would lose a lot of interest.

At this stage it certainly doesn’t appear that the suspects had anything to do with Al Qaeda, or any other organization. Their motives are unclear, and it’s hard to see how blowing up marathon runners aids the cause of a free and/or Islamic Chechnya[1]. While the bombings certainly qualify as a terrorist act, and were a horrific attack on obviously civilian targets, they don’t validate the notion of a “war”. They just demonstrate the continuing existence of individuals all too willing to kill others—unrelated others[2]—to the hope of furthering their political goals. That’s a terrible thing for a society to deal with, but it’s not new, it’s not part of a “war”, and there’s no “existential” threat to the nation.

In terms of danger, the bombings were overshadowed just this week by the explosion in West, Texas, which killed dozens and injured hundreds. There’s no hint thus far that anyone deliberately caused that explosion, but I doubt we’re going to see any major efforts to change the laws of the land in response to such a deadly accident. Apparently even the idea of imposing zoning restrictions so that dangerous plants aren’t in the middle of towns might be too much to hope for.

Whereas the Boston Marathon bombings have prompted calls to abandon various civil liberties, to “get used to this level of terror”, to accept ever-greater militarization, and so on.

In line with the rush to give up civil liberties, there have been calls to deny the suspect a normal trial and the normal rights accorded to suspects and the accused (including the right to be given a Miranda warning). None of these make much sense. There was little reason to deny Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda warning because it’s not like his statements were necessary to secure a conviction—indeed, it almost seemed as if it was done to push the point that because of the circumstances the government could simply ignore that right.

Similarly, what’s the point of not giving him a trial? Logically it only makes sense to deny trials in cases where the accused is clearly guilty—otherwise it’s obviously too big an increase in state power—but if they’re clearly guilty, there’s no good reason to not go through the trial process.

Not that I believe that the court system here works particularly well, but rushing to abandon it on the grounds that you really don’t like what someone apparently did is short-sighted and missing various points.

First, the rights that those accused of crimes have are not to make them feel better—they’re there to make sure the machinery of the state can’t imprison whomever it likes and call it “justice”[3].

Second, the rights accorded to the accused are not there specifically for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but are there for all of us, to protect us from state actors malevolent or mistaken. They’re most important when people are accused of the worst things, and if they can be taken away under those circumstances they’re not rights—or particularly useful.

Third, if you believe in the concept of law, if you think that the laws of this society are important, and if you believe in the importance of the US Constitution[4], then you should be ashamed of yourself for rushing to trample over them because you’re overcome with anger and/or fear in this particular situation. The entire point of laws[5] is supposed to be that they apply more or less universally and not that they should be cast aside when a different mood prevails.

The eagerness for the attackers to be part of Al Qaeda goes hand-in-hand with the desire to put aside civil liberties; it ties in with the notion that Al Qaeda is a powerful, omnipresent, and hugely dangerous organization rather than a loose amalgamation of desperate fanatics. Part of that is the statist agenda, which always wants a fearsome enemy in order to justify increasing state power, but part of it is also a desire for simple, comprehensive narratives: in some ways an evil organization out of a Bond movie being responsible for acts of terror is less scary than those acts being perpetrated by two idiots with pressure cookers and nails, because it’s less chaotic, less random, more comprehensible.

But it isn’t true.

Another thing that isn’t true: there’s never just one enemy. I’m not referring to e.g. North Korea or other “threats to America”—I mean that in the US, you’re threatened by the power of the state as much as or more than by terrorists. You’re more likely to be shot by cops—regardless of your having committed some crime or other—or executed legally, or imprisoned while innocent[6], than you are to be killed by terrorists. In a very real sense, the state is an enemy, and running to it saying, “save me, I’ll let you do anything you want” seems rather stupid[7].

[1] Which doesn’t mean that wasn’t their purpose—they might just be idiots.

[2] While it would have still been a terrorist act for them to have, for example, murdered the Chechen ambassador, or someone in the State Department, and it would obviously still have been wrong and very likely counter-productive for them to have done so, there’s a difference between trying to target those you think are opposing your cause and not bothering to do so but just killing people more or less at random.

[3] In theory. In practice, that machinery is awfully difficult to fend off unless you have a great deal of money, and/or political connections.

[4] Or other documents with similar provisions, for example the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

[5] At least in theory—as an anarchist I obviously have grave misgivings about this notion.

[6] And I’m not even counting the imprisonment of people who have done no harm, such as non-violent drug “offenders”.

[7] There are arguments to be made for the state being a lesser evil, for the benefits of its monopoly on violence, etc. I might not agree with them, but they can certainly be made. However, they all rely on checks upon state power, and the more the better. Otherwise you’re just talking about tyranny—but maybe the tyrant will make you feel safer, and that’s enough for you.

One Response to “The Boston Marathon Bombings”

  1. Robin Says:

    “Second, the rights accorded to the accused are not there specifically for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but are there for all of us, to protect us from state actors malevolent or mistaken. They’re most important when people are accused of the worst things, and if they can be taken away under those circumstances they’re not rights—or particularly useful.”

    I couldn’t agree more. To deny Tsarnaev his Miranda rights is a terrible precedent, even in the face of the terrible crime he is thought to have committed. The constitution, and the notion of innocence until proven guilty, argues against this decision. Each time a decision like this is made, it creates another chip in the foundation of democracy.

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