04/23/2013 11:40 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

Why Can't We See That Boston Is More Like Newtown Than 9/11? (Updated)


Update below.

A week of intense and rapid events in Boston. We are saturated after a flood of words and images. A clear description of what happened is emerging. White hat. Black hat. Two loaded bags infiltrated into the crowd. Boom. And again. Suspects on the run. One dead, the other captured. Beyond bare bones the detail, its sheer quantity, is uncanny. And still these chaotic and riveting scenes, where do they take us?

A bomb in the streets of Boston is something new. We judge the new by what we know. Only by saying what it looks like can we understand what it is. And it is from there -- appearance and belief -- that our reactions will, for good or for ill, take their course. That is why pretty much everything depends on what we see when we look at the screen. At that crossroads words and images catalyze and explode.

However charged with meaning, pictures do not speak for themselves. From shock to fear to terror. The story-machine of imagination stretches out from the image. It's the words and the wordsmiths that over and over tutor interpretation. That's what builds the doors and gateways of the public sphere, that's where choice chooses and action moves us.

It is rare that of its own accord proliferating detail all points the same way. We had better be wary when it does.

In this last week of one groaning minute after another, the first word and repeated recourse has been to terror. With deafening insistence we have been pointed towards and hammered with the idea that Boston looks like 9/11.

"Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror," a president averred. (Civilian? That's a bystander to uniformed combat, but the victims in Boston were citizens. Should we not then ask how many people killed by drones have been convicted of a crime?)

It was men who have "come here to kill people," declares a police chief. (Both Tsarnaevs were in the U.S. for more than a decade; they came here to live and study.)

"No Miranda rights" for "enemy combatants" shout congressional Republicans. (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a U.S. citizen and, for the moment, has been charged as such.)

These are "foreign nationals" at the "pointy end of the spear" and they must have a "larger network behind them," pundit after pundit of the civil defense society tell us. (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was thoroughly integrated from the age of 8 through his graduation from high school in Cambridge.)

Shameless "experts" set to work with insinuation, suggesting that "it's an open question... why that same group wasn't able to remove them from the country," as if suggesting that non-action by the Tsarnaevs' "group" proves its existence, suggesting that "Russia turns out to be, in some ways, the lynchpin of this case," which requires us to ask Moscow "what the brothers were doing when they went back to visit Russia, and why did the Russians ask us to investigate them," ignoring the actual fact that only one of the two visited there (these examples from Richard Falkenrath on Bloomberg).

Of course, "responsible" journalists caption innuendo by themselves and others with "we don't now this yet." This is like Henny Youngman's famous joke "when did you stop beating your wife?" Why is it that they cannot resist fertilizing the field of resentment and self-righteousness with the lexicon of 9/11?

Terror is a big business that moves at the speed of the news cycle. It seems that everyone wants a piece of the action. But they are not driven by profit alone. The lure of shock and awe is inexorable.

Once the first institution of liberty, the fourth estate and their electronic progeny found high drama but little offense in the siege of a city by 10,000 militarized personnel in search of a single person. If the bombing in Boston were actually like 9/11, a terrorist leadership in a cave somewhere would be giddy from toasting this astonishing rate of return on their investment. Isn't there something strange in how we applaud it ourselves?

Indeed, when the killers' names were released, one could almost feel the whole public sphere breathe a sigh of I told you so. With one allusion after another, talking heads threw us gleefully into the cauldron of cruelty and violence stamped by the name Chechnya. It was authorization for Islam to again become a mantra. And terrorism. The Fox broadcast entity, providing almost Pavlovian cues to legitimate journalism, continues to use those words synonymously.

How far can this rage extend? Consider that after the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dragged down the street by his brother's car, it was said -- as if reading wounds was reading tea-leaves -- that he was wearing a "suicide vest." If the police have cause for such exaggerated alarm, what should we say of emergency doctors who ring it again? Every little expert, deformed perhaps by profession but enacting the national fantasy of another 9/11, seems to hallucinate their own declarations.

We know who killed and maimed so many people in Boston. We know who suffocated the ecstatic celebratory event that the Boston marathon has been for a century. Just as we know that it is exceedingly important to track down every clue and bring the survivor to justice. It will be a huge task to try to understand what motives are worth all that and to whom.

But to understand what all this is we still have to see what it is like. And there proliferating questions form another fork in our national road.

Can we really see what is right before our eyes? Has a mirage in the form of 9/11 already made that impossible? What if Osama bin Laden really is dead? What if there is no Tsarnaev group?

Even if there are other evil people in the world, what are these two persons who actually wreaked havoc upon us? What if the two brothers are no more "foreign" (although vastly more malevolent) than the millions of immigrants who have made this country in millions of different ways?

What if these two starkly different brothers are nothing more and nothing less than pathetic and pathological losers who on some unknown model pumped themselves up for rampage and suicide?

What if the absurd phrase "self-radicalization" ("radicals" are people who go to the root, not the fringe, a political not a psychological position) is merely euphemism for the similarities between "jihadist videos" and "video games?"

What if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is more like Adam Lanza than Mohamed Atta?

What if Boston is more like Newtown than 9/11?

Will we be able to see that? And are you prepared to come to grips with what it actually means?

Update 4/26/2013: I am glad to have received a very large number of comments that seek to engage with the public issue I raised in this piece. Many merit substantial discussion, or at least a careful and extended response. I am sorry that this will not be possible. Instead, I have written a few additional notes that respond, I think, to some widely held concerns.

By writing this piece I hoped to do something rather simple. I wanted to interrupt our almost Pavlovian reflexes to track many different sorts of happenings in terms of "terrorism" and to take 9/11 as our guiding image of what that means. After 9/11, I wrote a book -- Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen -- about the historical and cultural roots of this reflex. In that book I emphasized the way this reflex plays into a long-term transformation of constitutional government in the United States. I tried to spell this out from the perspective of the citizen (rather than the victim, the soldier, the bystander, the business-person, etc.). These issues still have burning salience and blogs this week by Scott Atran, Arianna Huffington, and others continue that discussion.

Many readers pointed out that while Boston may not be much like 9/11, neither is it much like what happened in Newtown. Rather, they wrote, it is more like one or another of the well-known acts of public violence in the United States. That may be true; indeed, I admire the subtlety and insight of some of those observations. With time and luck we shall see how all this works out. However, once again, my aim had more to do with the type of inquiry citizens can and will undertake in our collective efforts to see where we may stand. Thus, I wanted to recall that 1) comparisons are inevitable (this is how human beings grapple with new experience) and that 2) we do ourselves a disservice to limit possible comparisons at the outset (because such prejudice is always blind to something). The single frame of 9/11 was and continues to be urged upon us by all sorts of commentators and this is a mistake.

A number of readers might have offered more productive comments had they taken more seriously my use of the word "more" in the title.

Another group of readers accused me of not seeing what seems obvious to them. Since neither science nor faith can depend on self-evidence, one may ask Where does that blunt objection originate? Both personal experience and history suggest that appeals to self-evidence are typically made by those who want to stop discussion rather than advance it. As for the substantive question -- What happened in Boston and why? -- time will tell; that was my point.

While it is reassuring to see how many people expressed agreement with my primary belief that we -- citizens, building our lives together -- should look before we leap, I was also impressed by the arguments that focused on terrorism, even specifically Islamist terrorism, and still acknowledged that all that is in important respects different today than it was a decade ago. This is a long discussion, but here citizen understanding is clearly out of phase with the media that harp on 9/11.

At some point, public violence that involves no group, no extended conspiracy, is informed almost entirely by public knowledge (like websites), is conducted by brothers and according to a whim ("let's go to New York") -- this simply does not belong in the same category as Al-Qaeda. There is something to the assertion (made by many readers) that people who throw bombs at innocent people are deranged.

Insinuation and euphemism conducted under the phrase "self-radicalization" points to solipsism not politics. This in turn opens the question whether or not a "self-radicalized" person is adequately described under a political category like "terrorism." For a model of isolated and self-motivating political radicals, perhaps we would do well to recall that when Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman sat in an ice cream parlor in Massachusetts deciding who should kill Henry Clay Frick, they were well integrated into the political fabric of 1890s America. They also had a specific political aim.

A great difficulty in our contemporary situation of public violence -- purportedly new, but actually quite old -- is to find the moral boundary that in some cases divides and in other cases joins "them" and "us." Of course, only fools would fail to be attentive to what "they" are doing. But here, in a forum like the Huffington Post, and generally in the kind of research that most interests me, I am more interested in who "we" are, and what "we" can do to reshape our lives together, than in "them." Democracy works and does best when it is about taking care of our own house, something we seem less and less willing or able to do.