Too close to home: the Boston Marathon bombing

Bombings at the site of the Boston Marathon have killed at least three people. EPA/Stuart Cahill/The Boston Herald

The terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon calls up a number of questions that have no easy answers.

As someone who once lived next to the scene of the attack and who experienced terrorist attacks while living in Washington D.C., this also calls up a number of uncomfortable feelings.

Having family and friends in the area – including one who had just completed the marathon shortly before the bombings – it is easier for me focus on the analytical aspects of why this attack might have occurred than to write about how it feels.

Terrorists of all stripes view themselves as altruists forced to do what most acknowledge are evil, but in their view necessary, acts to call attention to injustice. Terrorism is called “the weapon of the weak” – it is something groups resort to when they know that they do not enjoy public support and no one is listening.

By grabbing media attention, they hope that their concerns will be aired and that the public will ultimately look past its horror over the violence and come to support their cause. This has been the strategy for more than a century of modern terrorism, used by international groups like the Palestine Liberation Organisation and, increasingly, by “lone wolf” individuals like Norway’s mass-murdering Anders Breivik.

Given the lack of intelligence intercepted or claims of responsibility by existing groups right now, this attack appears to have been the work of a lone wolf or a small cell. They can’t launch major attacks like 9/11, but they are nearly undetectable in advance and incredibly dangerous in their unpredictability.

There is always the possibility that this was a foreign-based attack. One in eight Boston residents is a university student, at institutions like Harvard, with most drawn from outside the city and many from abroad. The Marathon also draws spectators from around the world; the male and female winners this year were both from Kenya.

Al-Qaeda supporters have been attempting to place bombs in crowded places in the US for years, such as the attempted car-bombing of Times Square in 2010 (by a lone wolf trained by the Pakistani Taliban). This attack on the Marathon consisted of synchronous bombings, which is a hallmark of al-Qaeda, and three of the four 9/11 flights departed from Boston’s Logan Airport.

But there are more reasons to believe this was a domestic attack by right wing extremists, besides the fact that al-Qaeda twin bombings are usually martyrdom operations and this clearly was not. The Boston Marathon always takes place on the Monday of the week of April 19. That is a state holiday in Massachusetts, Patriot Day, which commemorates the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War against Britain in the nearby town of Lexington, and it is also venerated by anti-government activists.

For loosely connected reasons, April 19 was also the date of the 1995 bombing of a Federal office building in Oklahoma City by an anti-government militia extremist that killed 168 people and was the biggest terror attack in the US until 9/11.

The day of this attack on the Marathon was also the day federal income taxes are due in the US, and that has been an occasion for small-scale assaults by extremists as well. Boston is close to Newtown, Connecticut, and it is easy to imagine that militia members may have been protesting proposed gun restrictions. Leftist, university-centred Boston is usually held up by the right wing in America as a source of cultural pollution and socialism and could be a target for that reason as well.

The finish line of the Boston Marathon after the bombings. So far, no individual or group has claimed responsibility. EPA/Michael Cummo

Everyone I know with a Boston connection says they either feel sick or are still in shock. Having attended Boston University, lived in that neighbourhood, and even watched the Marathon from Boylston Street where the bombing took place, it feels tragic not just for what happened, but for how this will unimaginably change other public gatherings in America in the future.

Counter-terrorism security has been intense at stadium events like the Super Bowl since the 1990s, but it is hard to imagine how you hold a marathon in strict security. Americans will just have to learn to live with new levels of risk, and presumably to be spectators at mass gatherings alongside armed police and soldiers.

Two days after I watched the Boston Marathon from Boylston Street as a freshman in college, I was in the pizzeria in Kenmore Square just a street away when I saw news of the Oklahoma City bombing. Six years later, I had to evacuate the US Capitol where I was working as an aide on 9/11, a beautiful autumn morning much as it was today in Melbourne where I am currently working.

A month after 9/11, my office was the one that received the anthrax mailing, and I was required to take heavy antibiotics for 103 days and receive army vaccines that had never been intended for post-exposure purposes. A year after that, the Washington DC area sniper shot people in the head outside of my hardware store and I crouched between the gas tanks when filling my car at night. I was happy to leave DC after all of this, and didn’t mind ultimately leaving America either.

This morning, shortly after I learned of the attack on Boston, I had to get off the tram and walk a kilometre or so when the police stopped traffic on St Kilda Road in front of the US Consulate in Melbourne.

Normally I can slip into academic mode when attacks occur, but this morning all I could think about was that other beautiful autumn day when I’d had to walk miles around a police roadblock to get home. You can’t get much farther from Boston than Melbourne, but obviously time and space never fully mitigate these experiences.

My heart goes out to everyone in Boston who will never have the same Marathon again, and everyone who will always worry about their security in public places. Today I wish I was a detached academic who didn’t know what the post-terrorism knot in the stomach feels like.