Don't let the Boston Marathon bombing terrorize you, or the bombers win

Bruce Schneier's terrific Atlantic essay on the Boston Marathon bombings is a must-read. As he points out, the terrorists win only if we let this sort of thing scare us. By being empathic toward the victims and indomitable and fearless toward the criminals, we can create a climate where politicians can get away with telling us the truth -- there's no such thing as perfect security -- instead of politically expedient lies that lead to an out-of-control security state that takes away our freedoms, diverts our education, unemployment and health money to security theater, and leaves us no safer.

How well this attack succeeds depends much less on what happened in Boston than by our reactions in the coming weeks and months. Terrorism isn't primarily a crime against people or property. It's a crime against our minds, using the deaths of innocents and destruction of property as accomplices. When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we're indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.

Don't glorify the terrorists and their actions by calling this part of a "war on terror." Wars involve two legitimate sides. There's only one legitimate side here; those on the other are criminals. They should be found, arrested, and punished. But we need to be vigilant not to weaken the very freedoms and liberties that make this country great, meanwhile, just because we're scared.

Empathize, but refuse to be terrorized. Instead, be indomitable -- and support leaders who are as well. That's how to defeat terrorists.

The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On



  1. I’d hesitate to call this an act of terrorism. To my mind, terrorism is an act of violence followed by the perpetrator announcing their grievances and threatening more violence.

    As far as I know, no one’s claimed responsibility. The Pakistani Taliban has even denied involvement.  This is just senseless murder.

    1. The FBI would agree with you, since it defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” At this early stage, we have no idea what (if any) political or social agenda was being pushed with this horrible act.

      And yet today the person ultimately responsible for that agency was pressured by the CNN and Fox to call this an act of terrorism (Obama’s caveats on that statement were all but ignored by the same outlets). That sound bite suited the sensationalist media because it has an interest in fostering the very atmosphere of fear Schneier so eloquently warns against.

      1.  “use of force or violence against persons or property to
        intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any
        segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

        This would seem to include every war, ever.

    2. Why turn it into a semantics debate? 

      If it makes people wonder if today is the day they’re going to get blown up, it’s terrorism. Shouldn’t matter if it comes from an identifiable organization or a single angry person.. it’s still random violence and has much the same effect on the population.

      1.  Because for the past decade, “terrorism” has been a loaded word, a shortcut to a complex idea. It invokes a great many emotions directly, precluding any rational thought.

          1.  Very little violence is actually random. It almost always has a purpose. Even nutjobs are generally trying to accomplish something, even if that something makes no sense to anyone else.

    3. If it’s intended to terrify, it’s terrorism. Words have meanings not entirely related to your personal construal.

      1. But we DO NOT YET KNOW whether this was intended to terrify.  Probably it was, but you’re assuming a lot in that statement.

        I can think of several scenarios that would “explain” what happened, but which I would not call terrorism.  (I’m NOT saying that any of these is correct; I actually suspect it was indeed what I myself would call terrorism.  But that’s all it is – suspicion.)

        –  Camouflaged murder: the bomber was actually aiming for one particular person or family, and added on the collateral damage to dispel suspicions.  Could be an heir, a business rival, etc. – or a professional hitman.  In this scenario, the bomber’s aim is cover, not terror.

        –  Targeted killing: the spirit of Phidippides  appeared to the bomber and told him/her to cleanse the marathon.  In this scenario, the bomber was aiming for mass casualties rather than terror.

        –  Random psychopath:  the bomber simply wanted to see a bunch of people hurt or dying.  Again, in this scenario the pain and death is the object, not the terror of the survivors.

        Again, I’m not saying that I believe any of those – but if any of them were true (and what evidence, either for or against any particular hypothesis, do we have at this point?) then I would NOT call this an act of terrorism.

      2.  I agree.  I think that the fact that no one has claimed responsibility adds to the fear.  Even without someone making specific threats, there is the worry that this will happen again and that once again we will have no warning.  On the other hand, if someone took responsibility it would give the impression that they could be tracked down and stopped.

      3. By that definition, the Halloween haunted house down the street is terrorism. You don’t get to make up meanings for things, either.

    4. At this point it’s looking like terrorism of some sort based on the bomb design.

      But yeah, Sandy Hook for instance was not terrorism. 

  2. hear-hear!   yet, in addition, it would be especially helpful if the media didn’t instantly turn the terrorist scum’s efforts into a 24hr “!!! the disaster show !!!”.   that is, it really is ok MSNBC, CNN, etc if you present other news during this sad time.

    (@#$’n amazing how quickly they each had a theme page and music for this awful event  “call in the graphic artists in swat gear!”)

    1. But how else could they fill the time that would be as easy to get viewers glued to their sets. The Disaster Show is a ratings WIN!

  3. Ain’t that the truth. Remember when airport security got changed so radically after that bombing at LaGuardia that killed eleven people in 1975? Remember that bombing? Speaking of 1975, remember when President Ford was almost shot two times in September alone? What about the time when Washington DC’s city hall was taken over for two days and Marion Barry was shot? Or the string of bombings by Puerto Rican nationalists throughout the 1970s and 1980s? It seems that when this stuff was more common, we freaked out less. So, um, I guess the silver lining is that it’s less common, so we’re freaking out more.

    1.  It’s called “habituation” when there is an event that happens for the first time, (or is of a greater magnitude then ever before) people have a huge reaction, after a while the reaction becomes less)

  4. I heard a security “expert” on the radio this morning, claiming that if the Boston Marathon Organizers had been responsible they would have removed every garbage can along the root.  All I could think was, what would people do with their garbage then?   40,000 people (I’m guessing based on 27,000 runners plus volunteers, staff, and friends and family) create a lot of garbage.  It would have been irresponsible not to give them a place to put it.

    1.  Give it to the runners.  “Could you throw this out for me when you get to Brookline?  Thanks.”

    2. It’s well known that good design is hard.

      It’s less well known that good counter-terrorism is hard too, for the same reason: namely, that laziness and shortcuts on the part of practitioners – and perhaps a lack of talent and training –  can lead to design solutions that make for a bad user experience (in this case, a police state).

      Which suggests that the whole terrorism/counter-terrorism dynamic ultimately reduces to a paradigm of design and counter-design.

      In the case you cite, imagine urban garbage cans that function like wells, with deposited items dropping into underground storage – in principle this could limit the damage caused by smaller explosive devices dropped into them. 

      Per se this may not be a viable solution, but as a design approach it seems plausible… and it’s already been going on for some time now with vehicle barrier designs at the entrances to major buildings.

      1. One vocal security expert over here was trying to get rid of bike lockers at railway stations because they can’t be inspected from the outside. But they could still make them out of mesh if they wanted. Nah lets get rid of the lockers.

        Many airports have transparent rubbish bins now. Thats a reasonable compromise.

        1.  Here in the SF Bay Area after 9/11, there was a temporary move to ban bike lockers on the regional subway system (they were later redesigned with a mesh shell). Of course, you could still park rented trucks in the lot under the elevated tracks and station.

        2. Mesh has the additional advantage of being much harder to turn into shrapnel than an enclosed container, and even if you do manage there’s less of it.

    3. That security “expert” was very shortsighted.  If we didn’t have marathons at all, that would be the most responsible thing to do.  Or, for that matter, we should ban all outdoor activities.  That’ll show the terrorists!

      1. Also, we cannot live near each other. If we’re all bottled up in an apartment building that would make a good target. An acre for every American and no congregating in groups of more than three.

        1. We already have something like this, but just for those that can afford it. See Cory’s post a few days back about isolated elites.

    4. People can handle their trash differently…  1) Garbage cans were removed in Paris after terrorist attacks in 1995 and then replaced by transparent bags   
      There is basically no trash can in Japan and there was little  (if ever)  trash on the ground.  You keep it in your bag, in your pockets until you get home.  

  5. We lost the war on terrorism way back when we created the Patriot Act and DHS – we fundamentally changed who we are as Americans, lost the moral high ground and became terrorists ourselves.

    1. Sorry, you already lost the Moral Hight Ground around ‘nam. You were just very successfull at shouting “we saved you in WW II” and damned useful at keeping the Soviets at bay.

      1. I’m afraid the US lost the moral high ground with the Philippine-American War.  No, wait, with the Mexican-American War.  No, the Northwest Indian War.  Er, we never did have the moral high ground, did we?

        1.  In this world, you really don’t have to be on ground that’s very high to have the moral high ground – I think the US may have held it a couple of times, for a while, in certain situations. But they do seem awfully eager to get rid of it the moment it becomes an inconvenience.

      2. Sorry, you already lost the Moral Hight Ground around ‘nam.

        I think that the more significant historical fact is that we lost the war. The desperation to avoid having that happen again has guided all US foreign policy since then, albeit unsuccessfully.

        1. The bigger problem isn’t the fact we lost per se, it’s the fact we didn’t actually learn anything from it.  We have been fighting the same type of “war” since then, one with no clear cut enemy, no clear cut boundaries.  The American military is built around destroying targets, fighting guerrilla style warfare is just not something we do well.

          I suppose we could have won in Vietnam, but given the damage and body count we would have had to have I think it would have been worse than loosing.

          1. What “we” did learn, or rather, what the military DID learn from Vietnam, was how to control media in areas in which US forces are involved in combat.

            Except for display events like the invasion of Grenada, and covert operations supporting foreign troops in civil wars, the US military has continued to lose conflicts that are, in many political and tactical ways, quite similar to Vietnam.

            But media coverage is tightly controlled, and body bags are only unloaded at night. The military was quite frank in its estimation of the power of media in negatively impacting their reach in Vietnam. They went to great lengths to change that reality. And they have succeeded.

  6. We must make a choice in any such situation these days: make more extreme (rather than carefully considered) attempts to completely eradicate such acts (attempts whose logical end involves our living in a thought-controlled police state), or turn toward trust – of ourselves, of each other, of the essential goodness of most. I hope most of us can muster the strength to do the latter. Our proven reluctance to do so, I’m afraid, is the weakness in our society’s OS that a desperate and highly malicious few have chosen to exploit. We must let there be no doubt that we will relentlessly pursue those who commit such acts. But the more we turn toward vengeance and control, the more we embrace thoughts of eradication of impurity, the closer we come to burning our house down to kill the roaches. 

  7. While it is tragic, it’s not a big event when compared even to the number of people killed or injured every day just in Boston. but it does give fuel to the fires of fear fanned by the TV news.

    So I hear. I don’t watch that junk.

    1.  51 homicides total last year.  That’s an average of about 0.14 murders per day.  Which would make the bombing about 1800% of the average number of homicides per day last year.  Yes, it was a “big event”.

      1. Don’t you have to average the bombing death number among all the bombings there? Apples to apples, after all.

        1. To my knowledge, there were no casualties in the 2007 Mooninite attack.

          I don’t have an “infinity” key on this keyboard. Is there a Time Lord language pack for Windows?

      2. So it’s three weeks worth of murders in one day. We had a drunk driver murder three people in my city a few years ago less than a mile from my house, and it only made the local news.

        1. You’re really trying to suggest that car wrecks and terrorist attacks share the same level of significance?

          1. Yes, I am. People die and get maimed all the time, and it’s a very big deal to those people and their families, and less of a deal to people further away from them. The cause isn’t so important. What, do you think it’s OK for people to be killed in car crashes, but not in bombings?

          2. That’s a ridiculous question. Terrorist attacks like this have a way of making people feel that they can’t be safe in even the most safest situations. That’s one of the purposes of spreading “terror”. You know this though I think, but you wanna run your little routine for some weird reason…

          3. What, do you think it’s OK for people to be killed in car crashes, but not in bombings?

            Oh I get it. You’re going to double down with this whole “dead is dead no matter how” thing even though we’re talking about accidents vs. mass carnage/murder via terrorist attack. You know how you look trying to diminish this nightmarish tragedy with such ridiculousness?Christ what an a…..

        2. Three people died and a lot of people lost their legs yesterday. Would it be too much to ask you to stop trivializing it?

      3. but the deaths from bombing still come to .008 per day, so we’re comparing apples with apples.

    2.  Doesn’t matter. People will start acting like craven little bitches, politicians will call for new and draconian restrictions in the name of freedom we will bend over and like it. Yep, the that’s one more for the terrorists!

  8. Yes, exactly this.  I was very heartened when I went to work today and everything seemed pretty normal (except no stops at Copley station).  Tourists are out, workers are at work, and everyone seems to be taking it in stride.  It is a beautiful day and people are not noticeably afraid.  Hooray for humans!

  9. And remember – there were 30 bombings in Iraq on Monday alone.
    I’m not saying that to trivialise this event, but it might actually help if the 24-hour news channels lived up to their billing.

    1. That’s one of the things that always gets me. Statistically, we don’t have a whole lot to worry about in the west, even though something like this rightly shocks us. Imagine a decade of targeted terrorist attacks to the extent that everyone knows people who died and you have a legitimate fear every time you go out in public or see something odd or someone acting a little strangely. You don’t even have the luxury of a drastic response, as politicians, the police and others who would normally do it are being targeted and infiltrated themselves.

  10. Increasing security will provide a disincentive to attend an event that should be all about enjoyment and friendly competition. Pat down searches is one of the primary reasons I quit attending live concerts. The point should be that terrorists and would be criminals have nothing to gain and everything to lose by harming innocent bystanders.

  11. “Wait, Aren’t You Scared?”

    Kung Fu Monkey’s classic 2006 rant

    FDR: Oh, I’m sorry, was wiping out our entire Pacific fleet supposed to intimidate us? We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and right now we’re coming to kick your ass with brand new destroyers riveted by waitresses. How’s that going to feel?

    CHURCHILL: Yeah, you keep bombing us. We’ll be in the pub, flipping you off. I’m slapping Rolls-Royce engines into untested flying coffins to knock you out of the skies, and then I’m sending angry Welshmen to burn your country from the Rhine to the Polish border.

    US. NOW: BE AFRAID!! Oh God, the Brown Bad people could strike any moment! They could strike … NOW!! AHHHH. Okay, how about .. NOW!! AAGAGAHAHAHHAG! Quick, do whatever we tell you, and believe whatever we tell you, or YOU WILL BE KILLED BY BROWN PEOPLE!! PUT DOWN THAT SIPPY CUP!!

    1. No, we just start blaming each other… left blames right, right blames left, right calls left traitorous, left calls right unamerican, and it goes on and on and on.  What we all really need are more brain cells.

    2.  The United States really has degenerated into a nation of craven cowards. It’s not just the “war on terror”, either. How many stories have we seen where kids were suspended for pretending to shoot someone with their finger, or blowing bubbles, or bringing a butter knife with their lunch? Meanwhile, genuinely dangerous legislation that benefits the wealthy, takes away our rights and pushes us further and further towards a police state is met with meek silence- or, more often, roaring approval.

    3.  If you’ve seen the closest footage of the bombing, (and I don’t recommend you do..) you’d notice that seconds after the first blast, even before the 2nd goes off, already there are people running TOWARDs the first blast area, and not all of them are in uniform. Yes, our greedy media tells us to be affraid, but some assholes just won’t listen.

    4. Wait this gets liked by people?  I’m confused.  I thought everyone wanted to play nice and get along…yet here we have people basically saying “come on fuck with us and we are going to beat the shit out of you.”

      Which personally I think we have lost since Regan…mostly because I thought he actually might push the red button and start WW3.

      Sometimes I wish a country would provoke us, not that I want a war, but it’d be nice to have an actual place that hates us not just a collection of people/ideas.

      1. First of all, he’s complaining about the bullshit daily “terror alerts” of the Bush era.

        Second, let me help you so you don’t waste any more energy working yourself into a self righteous lather, or, God forbid,, go to the actual effort of reading the thing you’re complaining about:

        “……… You get the point. There are a million factors in this New World of Terror. You weigh ’em, youprocess, and then you move on.

        You move on, building a better international society so that luddite fundamentalist criminal gangs/cults of personality are further and further marginalized.Or, if you don’t understand 4th Generation Warfare at all, you move on, bombing the shit out of nation-states and handing your opponents massive PR victories.

        Either way, you move the fuck on…….”

  12. The only way to fight bad guys with exploding trash bins is good guys with exploding trash bins.

  13. “Don’t let the […] bombing terrorize you, or the bombers win”

    It’s too late. You lost that fight more than 10 years ago.

  14. Interesting that so many people fail to apply this same logic to gun violence when it happens.

    “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    1. I don’t think you deserve the “liberty” to go on gun rampages or bomb people and take away the “liberty” of scores of innocent humans. And classy bringing “guns rights” into this…

    2.  Actually, quite a few people have applied exactly this sort of logic to maybe not gun violence in general (which is statistically kind of bad, and while there are still arguments of this sort made about them they tend not to be in the majority) but DEFINITELY to the mass shootings we’ve been seeing. Reacting out of proportion and out of fear is a terrible idea. Even if better gun regulation or better enforcement is a good idea that would make things better, arguments from fear based on tragedies (rather than arguments from desired results based on statistics and understanding) are almost always bad.

  15. This is exactly what I was talking about the other day. I fear this bombing is going to be the catylist for a for a round of new laws meant to “protect our freedom” by having Department of Homeland Security giving us cavity searches and checking our passports before we leave our yards!

  16. “we can create a climate where politicians can get away with telling us the truth”

    Well, it’s a nice thought, but I doubt it.  When politicians stop thinking about the next election and start thinking about matters at hand and how policy effects the majority of the population (instead of their donors) then perhaps they will be unafraid to just say the truth.  Until then we can expect lots of patriotic buzzwords and tiny American flag lapel-pins.  How we comport ourselves probably won’t make a difference for politicians, but it may improve our daily outlook on life.

  17. If I am not allowed to be afraid of sociopaths that kill people over their delusions, what can I be afraid of? 

    What I think you mean, is don’t let this sociopath turn you into a sociopath.

  18. The public and the media will probably pick up this message about as well as they did in 2001.

    There are vested interests in making sure the “terrorists” have “won.”   The American way of life seems to need enemies of one sort or another.

  19. Where is the anit-pressurecooker backlash and the call for background checks when purchasing ball bearings?

    Pardon the tags, but I didn’t want to be accused of being a gun nut.

  20. I want to state, that I am not afraid.  I wasn’t afraid on 9-11 and I’m not now,  and I’m pretty sure that this will not result in a single dime being shaved off the Pentagon’s budget, cause a single investor in the Military Industrial Complex to reallocate their monies toward an increased exposure in, say, solar energy, nor encourage even one politician (minor or major) to recant their dedication to a lifetime career of pathological fibbing to their constituents and start telling us the unvarnished truth… and all because of my calm demeanor and absolute confidence in carrying on in the face of the latest bombing.  Or the next, or even the one after that.  Nor if half the populace of this country signed a petition stating categorically they too are unafraid… unless they backed that up with not paying their taxes.  I believe that would get some attention from our government, when we cease to fund the wars.  If Schneier wants to write an essay to support our efforts to keep stiff upper lips in the face of terror, let him do so when we take on the fear and terror of our own government.

  21. I got this email from the director of my son’s preschool this morning:

    I am delighted to offer an update on security measures on  the [redacted] School campus. Following security items are vetted by the transition team  and we expect to implement them in the next few weeks.
    Installation of red 911 emergency phones on every yard.
    Raising the fence from 4 to 6 feet on the [frontage road].
    Building a reception cottage outside the main entrance, which will be staffed during hours of operations.
    Installation of keypads for entry.
    Making all  doors around the yard emergency exits and alarm sounding if opened.
    Training of staff and teachers on emergency procedures once a month.
    Installation of additional monitoring cameras around the campus and parameters.[sic]
    Please feel free to contact any member of the transition team with your ideas and suggestions.

    Bad enough that the president confused “parameters” with “perimeters,” but holy shit did this annoy me.  They’re gonna get a heapin’ helpin’ of “ideas and suggestions” from me, I tell you what.

    Maybe I’ll start with the suggestion that the six-foot-fence had better incorporate crash barriers and razor wire.  In fact, six feet ain’t half tall enough.  And each gate had better include metal detectors and a strict patdown procedure.

    They’d also better add motion sensor-activated sprinklers to keep the cats from leaving deadly turds in the sandboxes.  And facial-recognition software ought to be implemented for anyone dropping off or picking up their kid.  Subdermal tracking chips wouldn’t be out of place. And where the hell are the machine-gun nests and sentry towers?

    Fucking hell.  I think I’d rather take my chances with the Head Start down the block.

  22. Wars involve two legitimate sides. There’s only one legitimate side here; those on the other are criminals. They should be found, arrested, and punished.

    This, taken out of context, is what Guantanamo is all about.

    1. except at Gitmo, the residents are not necessarily guilty, and no one needs to know any more about that. 

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