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Essays, Justice, Quick Takes, Traditions

The Terror Of Boston and Other Terrors

It goes without saying that attacks that occurred at the Boston Marathon this week were horrendous, a tragedy not only for those immediately affected but for the nation as a whole as well. Although we don’t yet know the motives of the individuals responsible, at the very least the act was clearly designed to inflict terror through death, injury, and property damage. Thankfully, such acts are relatively rare in the United States, even if, unfortunately, they occur with seemingly greater frequency in other parts of the world. When such acts of violence do occur in the United States, however, it’s all too common to set them within a more general narrative that interprets them as portents of an increasingly violent world that poses ever greater threats to individual, social, and national security.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen such sentiment expressed on Facebook. One of my “friends,” for instance, commented that she remembers “the days when bombings and explosions were not common,” the days when “people generally cared about the welfare of others.” “The future is not looking good,” she wearily concluded. A comment on her post sounded a more explicitly apocalyptic note, holding up the explosions as evidence that we are living in the “last days.”

Such sentiments aren’t confined to the occasional Facebook comment, though. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took the explosions as a “reminder” of “just how vulnerable we really are in this era of what I call modern warfare.” Representative William R. Keating (D-MA 9th District), a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, noted that the attacks shore up the fact that even though we are “much better on pure preparedness – light years – the situations posed and the threats posed are greater, and they’re harder to detect.” Senator Susan Collins  (R-ME), a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, noted in an interview, “I believe that a lot of Americans have grown more complacent about the threat and this is a horrific reminder that the threat of terrorism is so very real and that there are those who are determined to harm innocent Americans using horrific means.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took the bombings as “a grim reminder of the hatred and contempt that many continue to harbor in their hearts not only for our nation and its freedoms but for innocent human life.”

We could multiply examples here, but it’s important to note that, on the one hand, such statements assume that our present is somehow radically different from our past in terms of violent acts that are, in one way or another, designed to inflict terror. 9/11 certainly functions as the threshold here, as the event that supposedly divides the history of the world in two, at least for those who live in the United States. Mitch McConnell invoked 9/11 explicitly in relation to the Boston Marathon explosions, setting the latter in light of the former. “On 9/11, we were forever disabused of the notion that attacks like the one that rocked Boston yesterday only happen on the field of battle, or in distant countries,” McConnell said. In terms of sheer scale and carnage inflicted 9/11 was, of course, exceptional. But it’s not as if what happened at the Boston Marathon is in any way only a symptom of living in a post-9/11 world. Unfortunately, like other nations, such events populate the history of the United States [link here: http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/04/boston_marathon_bombings_explo.html]. That’s not to diminish its horror, but it should remind us to be cautious before nostalgically invoking a violence-free, pre-9/11 past, an imagined past that plays up our supposed innocence on the world stage.

Yet, on the other hand, it’s politically expedient to invoke the assumed exceptionality of the Boston Marathon bombings. Doing so, as the quotations above suggest, sets the latter within the framework of the so-called war on terror, and ultimately justifies foreign and domestic precautions against similar occurrences in the future. We have to “resolve not to let terrorism change our way of life,” former Senator Joe Lieberman said in response to the recent attack, implying that we must take adequate measures to secure our way of life. Heightened security once again seamlessly becomes the norm under the constant threat of terror.

Situating the explosions that were set off at the Boston Marathon in light of the global “war on terror” is, of course, premature, but that’s the whole point: any and every event is already determined in advance to belong to that war and the narrative that supports it. Perhaps it will turn out that the attack on Boston is, indeed, explicitly linked to the “war on terror.” Whatever the case may be, the very fact that we have jumped to interpret it as such shows that our individual and collective psyches are already ruled by terror. That’s, of course, precisely the point of terrorism.


Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion and Mount Olive College, Mount Olive, NC. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology (Acumen 2013).

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