As this is written, on a transatlantic flight at midday on Tuesday, there is no information about the perpetrator(s) of the attack on the Boston Marathon. A few observations can be made about the explosions. The white smoke indicates that the explosives were probably relatively low-grade; the two bombs that exploded, and the other two that were allegedly found and dismantled, were small by the standards of the IEDs and time bombs that have become regrettably commonplace in terrorist incidents.
This also appears to have been a pretty amateurish effort by the murderously slick standards of this sort of operation in the Middle East, and at targets selected by experienced terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda in Europe, Latin America, and the Far East. Assuming that the objective was to do the maximum damage, the detonations were two hours late and neither of optimal strength nor of optimal location.
These are, I emphasize, observations based on early and fragmentary reports, but on that basis, we may now be entering a new and in some respects more dangerous phase of what we may now call the Terrorism Era. The War on Terror is a hackneyed theme and something of a misnomer, the ill-favored scion of other “wars” that were more accurately wars on correct English usage, such as those unsuccessfully and mainly rhetorically conducted against poverty, crime, and drugs. In all of these, we, society, have been comprehensively beaten and the governments have surreptitiously surrendered on our behalf.
Until now, we — almost all countries that are not failed states, even a thugdom like Russia — have been concerned to deal with terrorist groups that were professional, fanatically motivated, capable of recruiting and deploying suicide attackers, and espousing broad, radical goals (generally of a barbarous, hateful, and psychotic kind).
It has not exactly been a war, as it has mainly involved vigilance, espionage, and the odd attack on leadership cadres, who, though they ritualistically claim to crave death, in fact send the gullible idiots, the cannon-fodder of the faithful, to inflict and experience death, and hide like cowardly animals themselves (in the Osama bin Laden tradition). They are, in this as in almost all their practices, the exact opposite of the noble traditions that they affront and whose exemplars are now hunting them down, with gratifying success.
One of the highest compliments to Western military leaders is that they share the lot of the common soldiers and are sensible of casualties. These were among the most admired attributes of modern Western generals from George Washington at Valley Forge, to Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific and Bernard L. Montgomery and Dwight D. Eisenhower in Africa and Western Europe, to Creighton Abrams in Vietnam.
It is the case, though often forgotten, that guerrilla armies are far from unbeatable and guerrilla wars are, in fact, carried on only by those countries and causes that do not have the means or support required to conduct a real war. And it is just as true that acts of terror are consistently executed only by countries or movements that don’t even have the support or resources necessary to conduct a guerrilla war.