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.
The new danger that the Boston incident may presage is the arrival of the copycat amateur, who may not really know how to murder very effectively — though I do not mean to seem blasé about the terrible carnage in Boston, where apparently 140 people, including many children, were injured, and some of them, in addition to the three people already reported dead, are not expected to survive.
This sort of deranged criminal is not well-organized and often has no organization at all, and so is less of a threat to civilization than a terrorist network is. But having no network and not being in any conspiracy, this kind of enemy is much harder to detect in advance, infiltrate, and prevent from committing outrages. The copycat can make up in numbers and unobtrusiveness what he lacks in professionalism and the death-defying fervor of the serious terrorist.
Though the world’s governments have responded commendably after the atrocities at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, and the terrorist sequels in the intervening twelve years have been much less frequent and deadly than the mouthy post-9/11 videos of bin Laden and his henchmen gave us reason to fear and expect, bombings have become the chic crime.
The sort of lunatic who engages singly in this kind of crime is not usually that difficult to find, and often, like Son of Sam, and Timothy McVeigh, and perhaps even the Unabomber, wants to be caught and punished (McVeigh actually wished to be executed). These terrible misfits are so pathetic and warped that the same deficiencies that made them admire terrorists soon cause them to sully and squander the status of the chic crime, and homicidal fashion moves on, like the hemline.
While this gruesome cycle unfolds, preventive measures are available. These terrible dregs of every population are too unobtrusive to be easily identifiable before they strike, but even if they seek capture, notoriety, hatred, punishment, and the ritualistic death of the criminal justice system, they are not conventional suicide cases, and this too limits their potential for damage.
The first official precaution should be to line all the usual depositories of IEDs and bombs with blast-reducing material. I should disclose that my family includes some investors in the principal patent-holding company in this field, but my motive is not avaricious, and I will not be so crass as to name the product here. But it is not expensive, and is based on the use of volcanic ash in a sort of reinforced bubble-wrap that reduces the impact of blasts such as those in Boston by about 80 percent. Most of the lunatics minded to commit such acts would not be aware that garbage receptacles and mailboxes were so encased, and even if they were aware of it, losing those sites for their explosive devices would severely complicate their horrible tasks. There is no excuse for authorities at all levels not to take these elemental, simple, and very affordable precautions to protect the people, now.
And all of us should steer clear of the temptation, to which many yielded in the immediate aftermath of the Boston explosions, to impute any deranged act of indiscriminate violence to a rising and spreading wave of terror. If the suppositions I have recorded here are correct, the fact that these criminally diseased murderers may be trying to terrorize the whole country and much of the world does not mean that they qualify as terrorists, much less that we should assist them in achieving their goal by ascribing that status to them.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].