Friday, April 19, 2013

To Kabul, from Boston, with Love - Reflections on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Carlos Arredondo assists a bombing victim at the Boston Marathon.
 So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil — that’s it.  Selflessly.  Compassionately.  Unafraid.
- President Obama in a speech given the day after the Boston Marathon Bombing

Earlier this month the United States witnessed an act of terror that was not only a violent attack in its own right, but also a blatant assault on its values as a peaceable and free democratic nation. Besides being a wholly unexpected explosion in the midst of an ostensible peaceful celebration of life and vitality, this wrenching violence tore at the very fabric of our society. It struck a blow that not only deprived many of arms, legs, and lives, but also deprived them of freedom.
Distraught villagers after the massacre of 16 innocent people including 
nine children by a US soldier in Zangabad village in Kandahar province.
This story sounds familiar, and if you’ve tuned into the news lately you’ve likely heard it dozens of times already. From Fox News to MSNBC, the story sounds all too familiar. But this story isn’t the one you think it is. It isn’t about Boston, not directly at least. This is a story about Afghanistan, a story about the entire Arab world, and about the face of terrorism that we hardly see in America, but the kind of terrorism that most world citizens see when they look at America.

Early in April, just the week before the Boston Marathon Bombing, 11 children were killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan. And while the Boston Marathon Bombing garnered headlines and 24-hour news coverage, these Afghanistan bombings barely made a blip on the radar for the media. As the blogosphere hashes out the details of the Boston Bombing (with lots of blame assigned to innocent parties in the meantime) it seems a far better use of time to instead analyze the violence that we hardly see, rather than the one we can’t stop looking at. As Obama officially labeled the Boston Marathon Bombing an act of terror, it seems prudent to survey the War on Terror as a whole, and make sense of the brave new world we live in, where terrorism has come back to our shores once again.


After a decade of the so-called War on Terror, the United States has failed to address the pressing question: How can you adequately fight terror when you are its greatest purveyor? There is no question that in numerous attacks, September 11th being the most significant of them, the United States has been subjected to unbearable atrocity through the acts of vicious and unreasoned terrorism. Nevertheless, as Obama insists in the epigraph for this essay, the United States must be defined not only by it suffering in the wake of these attacks, but its active responses to them.

When September 11th occurred the United States began to, literally and figuratively, pick apart the rubble and sought to rebuild even stronger than before. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” laments T.S. Eliot. And in the wasteland that remained of ground zero (as well as the USS Cole, Oklahoma City, the Atlanta Olympics, Fort Hood, and others), ordinary citizens were summoned to courage and acts of honor that saved lives and made many proud to be counted as American citizens alongside them.

Wedded to these acts of valor has been a darker side of the War on Terror, the terror that America wages abroad. The September 11th hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates, but the U.S. thought it prudent the bring the full weight of its military power on two unrelated countries: Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then the United States’ military engagements have been as morally questionable as they have been fatal and interminably long.

Take Iraq for instance. The tenth anniversary of its invasion by the United States occurred just last month. That war cost $1.7 trillion dollars and an estimated 176,000 to 189,000 human lives, at least 134,000 of which have been Iraqi civilians. In the wake of such brazen carnage, we must ask again: How can you adequately fight terror when you are its greatest purveyor?

We passed the tenth anniversary of the War in Afghanistan two years ago already, and that war rages on to this day. Initiated with the supremely ironic title Operation Enduring Freedom, this nebulous war against vague foes and dubious terrain has claimed 16,725-19,013 lives. For those who live on problems still remain. The country has been set back significantly in terms of politics, infrastructure, and social stability due to a war that has lasted over a decade, and with renewed fervor in recent years. In 2009, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health reported that two-thirds of all Afghans suffer mental health problems. In 2004 the life expectancy for an Afghan was estimated to be a mere 42 years while 25 percent of all children did not reach the age of 5.
These depressing statistics sound discouragingly familiar to most American listeners. Many have the all-too-common experience of hearing the latest news from Iraq and Afghanistan (and occasionally nearby countries) and letting the facts and figures of death and suffering wash over them. Many even are aware that America is in many ways responsible for such violence and recognize that their complacency only serves to allow such brutality to continue. This shared nihilism is the result of what seems like inevitable violence, endless warfare, and hopeless politics.


On the surface, the conditions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the many other countries that America’s military forces meddle in, have little to do with what has recently transpired in Boston. There is little known about the two suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombing that claimed three lives (so far) and injured 183 innocent bystanders on April 15, 2013. We do know that they are not from the Middle East.

Nevertheless, there is, however, a deep connection between the act of terror at the Boston Marathon and the terrorism seen all around the world. The connection is not the one that many in the conservative media have been quick to falsely promote. The New York Post and Fox News were the first to point out that a Saudi national had been detained near the seen of the bombing and questioned by law enforcement. But despite the fact that smaller media outlets (such as Breitbart, The Blaze, Jihad Watch, and Atlas Shrugs) promulgated this misleading story, it has been confirmed that the man was a witness, not a suspect. He is a student and another innocent bystander that, in the words of a U.S. official, "He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time."

The connection between Boston and Middle Eastern terrorism is both more complex and more fundamental than scapegoating innocent bystanders. The connection stretches back to the founding of America and the supposed upholding of core American values. America is the country that, in Jefferson’s words, supports life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This country was founded on the principle that we should not suffer “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and that war mongering against a civilian population is nothing but the “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

America, as John F. Kennedy once said, “shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us." Part of the myth of American Exceptionalism is that America stands out among all other nations in history as a great experiment in democracy. It stands for justice, for freedom, for peace, and so on. The dark side of this mythology is that it gives ample excuse for the United States to intervene when it perceives other countries not falling in line with such Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism leads to Korea, to Vietnam, to Iraq, and to Afghanistan.

In the age of drone warfare, American Exceptionalism is exported that much easier. With the push of a button from afar, drones rain down hellfire on many an unsuspecting terrorist, and many an unsuspecting innocent civilian as well. In his speech given the day after the Boston Marathon Bombing, President Obama insisted, “We also know this — the American people refuse to be terrorized.” But what we do not know is whether Americans will refuses to terrorize. So far the clandestine drone war in the Middle East has claimed 3,000 lives, many of whom are civilians (though hard numbers are difficult to come by due to the secretive, and unconstitutional, nature of this military operation).

How can those who are looking to America see the shining city on the hill, that beacon of hope, when we are sending cybernetic bombers to them? Such statistics are not intended to demean the suffering and pain going on in Boston right now. I friends and family in the Boston and I am deeply invested in the welfare of that city and its citizens. The point, however, is that many countries around the world face similar brutality on a daily basis, often directly at the hands of the United States or in the wake of our destructive policies towards them.

As Obama intoned, Americans will not stand for terrorism within their borders. The fear, however, is much greater. The fear is that the type of terrorism we have been exporting for years (even decades) may come back to haunt us within our own borders. A recent BuzzFeed article illustrates this predicament:
The nature of the Boston Marathon bombing provides a glimpse at American law enforcement's worst fears in the post-9/11 world: That the kind of low-grade, low-tech, and murderous attacks that have become sadly routine in more troubled parts of the globe will start to appear here.
That article compares Boston to Kabul and Baghdad for good reason. The violence that American exports under the guise of American Exceptionalism will inevitably come back to haunt us. True, the Boston Bombing may have had nothing to do with Middle Eastern terrorism (and it is not my intention to dangerously insinuate such a link when there is none, as many already face significant racial profiling and discrimination as it is). Nevertheless, we live in a violent, terrorized world, and it cannot escape our understanding that America is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”


The fear that the events like that in Boston will become regular in America, as it is in other countries, is ironic considering America’s direct role in spreading violence. Consider the Deh Bala wedding party airstrike in July of 2008. A U.S. military airstrike accidentally bombed a wedding party transporting the bride to her husband’s village. 47 Afghans were killed, almost all of whom were women or children. The Unites States still denies its involvement in the incident, despite ample evidence for it.

Or perhaps consider the Wech Baghtu wedding party airstrike, which occurred just a few months after that previous incident. Once again, a wedding was bombed by U.S. forces, this time 37 Afghans were killed. As usual, the victims were mostly women and children.

What about the Granai airstrike of 2009, where approximately 86 to 147 Afghan civilians were killed in a U.S. strike? Is this the sort of terrorism that the U.S. is willing to accept? Again, the victims were largely women and children. Or because they are in a war torn country are the copious civilian deaths are carelessly carried out military attacks acceptable?

The list goes on, sickeningly so. Besides Deh Bala, Wech Baghtu, and Granai there is Azizabad, Sangin, Kunduz, Uruzgan, and so many more. When Obama insists that Americans will not accept terrorism, where are those sentiments for the terrorism against the Afghan people, the Iraqi people, the Pakistani people, and all those who suffer from American Exceptionalism? When Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006 we were not at a loss for people to openly declare his good riddance. Hell would welcome him with open arms for what he did to his own people. While Saddam’s human rights abuses were deplorable, Iraq is even more unstable, violent, and bleak tens years after the American invasion. Americans rejoice that at least Saddam is no longer in power, but the 134,000 deceased civilians cannot share that joy, nor can the war torn and irreparably damaged survivors.

In a tepid response to the carnage caused by the United States abroad, particularly the ongoing drone war, intrepid reporter Amina Ismail had the audacity to ask White House Press Secretary Jay Carney if U.S. bombings that kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan constitute an “act of terror” considering that Americans were so quick to label the Boston Marathon Bombing an act of terror. Ismail’s question was particularly oriented to the fact that earlier this month 11 children were killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan, though given the incidents enumerated above, the question could pertain to the whole of the U.S.’s military involvement in the Middle East.

Carney’s response was to emphasize that “we take great care in the prosecution of this war” as he otherwise dodged the question entirely. Reporter Rania Khalek commented succinctly on the matter, “At the very least, this serves as another example of the utter meaninglessness of the word ‘terrorism.’”

Terrorism, as Obama notes, is something we do not accept for ourselves. It is all too clear that it is perfectly fine when we do it to others though. The ability of the Obama administration to define what constitutes terrorism, as Carney did, gives them immense rhetorical power in the War on Power. Many in the media reprimanded the Obama administration last year, when the New York Times reported that the U.S. reportedly counts any military-age male killed in a drone strike as a militant when assessing civilian casualties. A State Department official once told the New York Times about a joke that for the CIA, “three guys doing jumping jacks,” was a terrorist training camp.


The Constitution of the United States begins with a beautiful and idealist phrase worth considering in these circumstances:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
True, the Constitution only established the rules and values of the United States and its citizens. Nevertheless, the rhetoric about American Exceptionalism, rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that shining city on the hill indicate our desire not just to treat U.S. citizens peacefully and respectfully, but all world citizens. That shining city was a beacon of hope for non-Americans as well. In the words of Emma Lazarus, emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty,

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

If we wish to truly combat terrorism, domestic or international, America must truly wage a War on Terror like it has never seen before: a war on the terror it creates. America may have witnessed an attack on its values and way of life in Boston, but this is nothing so significant as the attack on its values we witness when Americans violate such values themselves. When U.S. forces invade countries for suspect reasons it is an attack on our values. When the U.S. drops bombs on innocent civilians it is an attack on our values. When the media employs racial profiling to attract readers it is an attack on our values. When the U.S. detains prisoners, such as in Guantanamo Bay, without cause or trial it is an attack on our values. When the U.S. engages in brutal torture, as is now entirely indisputable, it is an attack on our values. And, in light of the recent events in Boston, when airlines remove passengers from planes for speaking Arabic it is an attack on our values.

Torture in particular has garnered significant attention in recent days, as a New York Times article released information on a damning, non-partisan report providing conclusive evidence that the U.S. did torture during the decade after September 11th. The report concluded that by engaging in torture, the U.S. “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.”

Former Republican congressman Asa Hutchinson said, “The United States has a historic and unique character, and part of that character is that we do not torture.” Democrat and former ambassador to Mexico James R. Jones said “We lost our compass.” This is clear evidence that the U.S.’s response to evil was not honor and bravery, but cowardice and fear, something that we should be deeply ashamed of as a nation.

Speaking just hours after the Boston bombing Obama remarked:
But make no mistake, we will get to the bottom of this. And we will find out who did this; we’ll find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.
The horrific nature of the Boston bombing insists that we do get to the bottom of it and let the perpetrators feel the full weight of justice. Nevertheless, in times such as these it is necessary to look ourselves in the mirror to see the true face of global terror, and resolve to work towards peace, freedom, and democracy. These core American values that are not tarnished through acts of terror committed against America, but the acts of terror committed by America. Only then will the full weight of justice have accomplished its goal.


We are having trouble articulating our fears, our insecurities, in this world that is, by and large, of our own making. The title of a recent Onion article, “This What World Like Now,” humorously sums up that inarticulate sense of the present. The article writes, jokingly, that “officials confirmed Tuesday that the bombings and senseless violence that followed occurred primarily because this is the kind of world we live in now.” But isn’t the world we already lived in? Our relatively safe cities and peaceful homes are illusions that counterbalance the horror many already face around the word. Kabul and Boston could never be far enough away to let global politics affect one but not the other. The article goes on to say

According to reports, this is an age when, in an instant, two explosions can go off in rapid succession in a major urban center, disrupt the lives of thousands, and terrify hundreds of millions. In addition, those familiar with the situation went on to note that going through one’s day-to-day life with the uneasy feeling that a devastating act of violence could happen with little rhyme or reason is ‘just how it is now.’

When the count of the dead civilians numbers in the hundreds of thousands in the Middle East due to the workings of the U.S. military, the idea that three more dead in Boston has changed something is laughable at best. Perhaps its best to heed the wise words of Bob Dylan in this instance, who, in 1963 sang, “For you don’t count the dead /
When God’s on your side.”

The Onion writes, people “die because, in this world, it’s more likely than not that some madman out there is hell-bent on instilling fear in others and destroying the lives of innocent people.” The sad truth is that for most of the world, the U.S. is that madman, hell-bent, gun in hand, drone hovering, tapping your phone call, bombing your wedding, shooting your school, and claiming you as an enemy combatant because you might have happened to be 16 years old. The Onion points out that it’s a horrible world when among the dead is an innocent child. Earlier this month an drone strike killed 11 children, but that was business as usual and hardly reported on. Are American lives worth that much more than Afghan lives? Are we really that much more exceptional as to bemoan the death of our own children while murdering literally hundreds of thousands of innocent lives outside our borders?

The Onion writes “Now, if you feel like you live in an unpredictable place where somebody hates you for no reason whatsoever and literally wants to murder you even though they’ve never even met you, well, that’s living in the world based on how it truly is.” This irony is lost on most Americans. Schoolchildren in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are constantly subjected to U.S. bombs and drones. A wedding party could get bombed for appearing suspiciously like a terrorist camp. As that real-life State Department official commented, three men doing jumping jacks constitutes terrorism in the eyes of the U.S.

The Onion includes a fictional quote from a 42-year-old Pennsylvania resident who says. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I have never wanted to kill anyone. And yet there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who desperately want to kill me.” This fictional resident, standing in for many Americans, clearly never experienced the violence and discrimination that almost all non-white Americans face. And if you can’t understand someone wanting to kill you, trying living as a person of color in the segregated south, or in Harlem of the 1960s. Or don’t travel to the past, go to the streets of Chicago or Brooklyn, where undercover police may kill you for looking suspicious. Go to the streets of a Middle Eastern city where an American soldier who thought you looked like a terrorist can shoot you in cold blood with little to no repercussions.


The Boston Marathon Bombing occurred on Patriots’ Day, a holiday celebrated only in Massachusetts, Maine, and Wisconsin. This little-known holiday ostensibly commemorates the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. More broadly though, the holiday is a time to restate our commitment to American values and honor the real patriotism of defending not just a plot of land demarcated as a nation, but a set of beliefs, a way of life.

When Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence he did so not to advocate the right for Americans to live in a certain place at a certain time, but to live by certain freedoms and a whole new way of governance. As we face increased security, heightened surveillance, and tightened border security it is easy to mistake America for a plot of land rather than a set of beliefs pertaining to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” We must prove experience wrong and refuse to continue suffer such evils as endless war, arbitrary and undemocratic drone strikes, and the continued destruction of peaceful politics in regions such as the Middle East. Luckily, due to men like Jefferson we don’t have to start from scratch or abolish our existing forms of governance. There is great potential for democracy and peace in the United States’ structure of governance. Like all forms of government though, it is all too easily swayed by those who sow fear and reap profit.

That aforementioned Onion article ends with the nihilist assumption, “What reportedly frustrates and angers them most, every citizen in America said, is accepting that there is absolutely nothing they can do to change it.” This is patently false. True, we cannot stop every terrorist out there, but we can work towards changing the aggressive nature of the U.S. through the democratic mechanisms handed down to us from our American founders.

How we react to the Boston Bombing is as yet unclear. We know of no suspects thus far and it is unclear if there are other attacks or threats to come. We must, as Obama directed, determine how we will respond to evil. His suggestion that we do so selflessly, compassionately, and unafraid is sound, but we must recognize that that is not what we have done in the past. Indefinite detention, reactionary war, drones, and torture has been par for the course. To break this cycle, we the people must instead show ourselves capable not only of rejecting terrorism within our borders, but without it as well. That would engender a lasting peace that would make American Exceptionalism worthy of its name and, in the spirit of true patriotism, could truly make America the shining city on a hill we have all been waiting for.

1 comment:

  1. The urgency of this theorizing cannot be overstated, and you systematically deconstruct the doublethink of US imperialism in a wonderfully optimistic piece. The Boston bombing is an obvious tragedy, but more tragic and more destructive is the violence over-written onto our national identity. As you point out, there is an idea of America as peaceful, as an agent of true democracy and justice, which is struggling to come into being. Unfortunately, the America that exists is far from this ideal, but MLK was able to decry the existing America while appealing to the ideal America. Tragedies such as this, and such as the perpetual tragedy of US imperialism and capitalism, should offer a window into re-imaging ourselves and the national project.