The Boston Terrorists and the American Social Fabric

The terrible events in Boston last week are a reminder of the threats that Americans now face. If an event like the Boston Marathon can be attacked in such a murderous and cruel way, it is hard to imagine any place or event that is no longer vulnerable to similar attacks. Terrorism is heinous not only because of the victims it kills and maims, but because of the fear it creates in all of us. The unpredictability of these attacks is central to creating this fear. If the Boston Marathon, a feel-good, if arduous, symbol of spring time and civic pride for a great American city can be disrupted so brutally, then so can any ballgame, public concert or crowd.

This is a frightening thought, but it is also the essence of the fear we must defeat. The two brothers who committed this terrible act for reasons that are still not entirely known are now dead or captured. Other than the direct impact of their attacks, their violence has not damaged the U.S. The resilience shown by spectators and participants in the Boston Marathon, the first responders, law enforcement agencies and the people of Boston are evidence that the terrorists were wrong. If the Tsarnaev brothers' goal was to weaken the U.S., they have done just the opposite. The evidence suggests the terrorists will never win through this approach. Unfortunately, the evidence also suggests they will keep trying.

Thus, one of the central challenges in fighting terrorism is vigilantly maintaining our open societies, public events and civic life in spite of real threats. Ironically, we will become more vulnerable if this vigilance were to weaken. The strength of the social fabric in Boston was demonstrated in the hours, days and minutes following the attack. That social fabric can only exist in a place where there is trust and a sense of citizenship. One of the most striking, if underreported, aspects of the response of ordinary Bostonians is that it occurred in a time where political polarization is as high as it has ever been. The response of the people of Boston, compared to the political grandstanding on all kinds of issues in the months preceding the attack, is further evidence that the people of the U.S. are, for the most part, ahead of their elected officials.

Terrorist attacks of this kind often show the U.S. at its best. Communities pull together to support each other. Volunteers rush to do everything from primary medical care to donating food, money and blood. Local and national law enforcement occasionally make mistakes, but generally are very diligent in capturing the killers. For a few days, at least, partisan politics are forgotten and there is again a feeling of community that permeates political and civic life. Yankee fans even sing "Sweet Caroline" during baseball games in the Bronx.

Not all of this will last. Within weeks we will go back to partisan fighting in Washington and in our neighborhoods. Within a few months, a partisan edge will characterize the national discussion of these events as well. Instead of hearing stories about how law enforcement officials steadfastly caught the terrorists, the law enforcement stories will more likely be about stop and frisk policies or racial profiling; and the next time the Red Sox come to Yankee Stadium, they will be roundly booed.

Following attacks like this, it is easy both to call for dramatic new legislation to either increase surveillance or skirt due process. It is equally easy, but not entirely fair, to ridicule these ideas as hasty or thoughtless. Skirting due process or increasing surveillance are not good ideas, but in many cases they originate from decent goals. Avoiding another attack or capturing the next terrorists, are worthy aims which most Americans support. However, these goals must be met from America's strengths and courage, our free and open society, not from our fears.

This terrible attack in Boston will soon become part of history, but for those of us who were not directly affected, it will quickly recede into the background. The Tsarnaev brothers likely will be remembered for their alleged murderous acts and little more. They will have accomplished nothing through this act, not even making their ideals, whatever those might have been, become closer to reality. Ultimately, these two men will serve as a reminder that terrorist attacks cannot bring down the U.S. It is a sad truth that the Tsarnaev brothers may have helped repair, at least temporarily, a social and political fabric that is unraveling, but it is also a reminder that failure to maintain that social and political fabric is a much greater threat to our country than two sleazy murderers in Boston.