Allan Massie: Keep Boston bombings in perspective

One of the blast sites on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Picture: AP
One of the blast sites on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Picture: AP
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WHILE abominable, worse events than the marathon bombing happen every day elsewhere in the world, writes Allan Massie

If you were a citizen of Baghdad or Damascus, then you might, quite reasonably, greet the news of the Boston bombs with a shrug of the shoulders. On Monday there was a news report of “a string of car bombings and other attacks” which “killed at least 32 people across Iraq as the country geared up for local elections.” Some 15 people were killed by bombs in Baghdad itself. Last weekend, too, at least 29 people were killed by “explosive devices” in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. And then there is Syria … according to the charity Action on Armed Violence, car bombs there kill, on average, 32 people per incident.

None of this lessens the horror of what happened in Boston, but it does put it in perspective. The number of dead is put at three (at the moment of writing); it may, one hopes, be no more than that. There will be many in Pakistan and the Middle East quick to remark that more civilians, among them women and children, have been killed by American drone attacks every month, perhaps every week, of the past year. They will add that American life is no more sacred than Muslim life.

No organisation has yet claimed credit for the Boston bombs. The former Boston police commissioner , Bill Bratton, says there is no shortage of candidates. There are, he observes, “lots of people who dislike our government”.

British security consultant,Richard Barrett, formerly of the Foreign Office and our own Security Services, who has acted as the United Nations co-ordinator for the al-Qaeda and Taleban monitoring unit, says: “At the moment ,it looks more likely that it was a right-wing terrorist incident rather than al-Qaeda attacks because of the size of the devices.”

Moreover, he adds, “this happened on Patriot Day. It is also the day Americans are supposed to have their taxes in and Boston is a symbolic city” – on account of its role in the War of Independence.

All this is mere speculation. Other commentators have pointed to the advice given by Abu Musad al-Suri, a theologian reputedly active within al-Qaeda: “The type of attack which repels states and topples governments is mass slaughter of the population. This is done by targeting human crowds in order to inflict maximum human losses.

“This is very easy since there are numerous such targets – such as crowded sports arenas, annual social events, large international exhibitions, crowded marketplaces, sky-scrapers, crowded buildings etc.”

This means nothing in the context of what happened in Boston. It means nothing because it is so obviously true. You don’t need to be an affiliate of al-Qaeda to come to this conclusion. It is mere common sense. We all know that absolute security is impossible in an open society.

The security services of a state may track the activities of everyone who comes under suspicion, and it is clear that here in the UK and the rest of the European Union, and in the United States itself, they generally do so very effectively. But they cannot guarantee success, and there is always the possibility that an act of terror may be committed by an individual or even a group whose previous behaviour has not attracted the attention of the security services.

It is harder to detect the lone wolf than to monitor the behaviour of an identified pack of wolves. Moreover, the lower the profile of the target, the harder it is to defend.

It is easier to take measures to prevent anyone from getting a bomb on to an aeroplane, than from leaving one on a commuter train or in a rubbish bin. You can guard a government office more effectively than you can guard a school, a cinema, or a shopping centre.

The extent to which the security services and the police can protect the members of an open society is, unavoidably, very limited. Life would be intolerable otherwise.

We accept, with a deal of grumbling, the level of security precautions now taken at airports, but we recognise that airports constitute a special case. For one thing, most of us use them only a few times a year and so we put up with the minor inconveniences to which we are subjected. But to impose a security check on everyone who boards a city bus would be grotesque; it would bring normal life to a halt. So, we accept the risk that a lone bomber may have targeted that bus, and indeed we may do so several times a day. It is impossible to guard against every terrorist act aimed at the general public.

The American police and security services may well find who is responsible for the Boston atrocity, and that will bring some satisfaction. However, it would also highlight the disturbing truth: that detection is easier than prevention. It is very hard to forestall a crime, even in the case of the lone psychopath, like the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Brevik; it is much harder, and may be impossible, when the perpetrator has stayed under the state’s radar, and has never previously been an object of suspicion.

After something like Boston, it is natural to call for more security measures, and doubtless the police – conscious of the “copycat syndrome” – will be even more vigilant at this weekend’s London Marathon. There is always a nervous reaction to such things, and a tendency to forget just how exceptional they are.

We should remember that there are large public assemblies in every western country, every western city and town, every day of the year; that millions of commuters travel safely every day, that shopping centres are thronged, concerts and sports events staged, all in perfect safety; think, for example, of Edinburgh during the festival, of the potentiality then for an atrocity. And … but perhaps it is better not to dwell on this, and simply to say, “the show must go on”.

What happened in Boston is appalling. Yet it is appalling also because this sort of thing is, happily, very rare in our part of the world. Horrors every bit as bad, much worse indeed, happen every week in less fortunate countries. One can imagine a citizen of Baghdad reading the reaction of Americans and Europeans to the Boston bombs and wondering what all the fuss is about.