After the shock of sudden violence and the dark weight of grief, there was the strange flush of familiarity. The bombing of the Boston Marathon on Monday was like nothing that had happened before, and yet it brought back alarming memories.
There was the setting: The celebratory family-filled endpoint of a huge amateur sporting event. Here was Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, where the 1996 Games were darkened by a strikingly similar backpack bomb that killed two and maimed more than a hundred.
There was the date: Patriot’s Day, originally on April 19 and now a public holiday in Massachusetts and Maine on the third Monday of April – a commemoration of the battles of Concord and Lexington, which launched the American Revolutionary War in 1775.
This was the day chosen, quite deliberately, by Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 and injured close to 700. For members of certain right-wing sects in the United States, including the so-called Militia and Survivalist movements, Patriot’s Day holds great symbolic importance.
Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps coincidentally, it also happens to be the date of at least two other American atrocities: The deadly assault on the Branch Davidian cult complex in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and the shooting-spree massacre at Virginia Tech university in 2007.
There was also the method: Two improvised bombs, likely placed in backpacks and made to detonate at an interval, perhaps so as to kill those who would run to help. This delivered an alarming flash of familiarity, too – but more so to those viewers in other continents, where this tactic is all too well-known. Dina Kraft, a U.S.-based columnist for Israel’s Haaretz magazine, described the attack as “political violence of the kind one sees more often in Israel, now transplanted to a more incongruous foreign stage,” and was one of many who noted the bombing’s similarity to jihadist attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere.
For those who live in fear of America’s well-entrenched circles of right-wing extremists – by far the country’s largest source of violence and mayhem – there seemed to be plenty of fodder for suspicion. Likewise, for those who fear Islamic-extremist terrorism, which still remains a tangible threat and last struck the U.S. in a significant way in 2009, with a shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, and 2010, when an unrelated bomb plot aimed at Manhattan’s Times Square was intercepted, there seemed to be just as much evidence.
It could have been either of these, or something else entirely: So far the U.S. authorities have exercised caution in speculating on motives or suspects – perhaps remembering the terrible errors of the 1996 Atlanta bombing. That time, in strikingly similar circumstances, prosecutors implicated a security guard named Richard Jewell who helped victims in the bombing’s aftermath. The real culprit, an anti-abortion extremist named Eric Rudolph, was not identified until almost two years later.
There was, as the news broke on Monday, a rush to attribute blame or link the event to other atrocities. On the Internet and in less respectable corners of the media, there were those who pointed fingers at North Korea, al-Qaeda, Muslims in general, the pro-firearms movement, the Christian Right, and even the U.S. government.
But, despite the jarring sense of déjà vu, it was no time to speculate on motives or causes. The United States contains many threats, although terrorist violence remains extremely rare there, given its huge population and geography. When it occurs, it is too easy to remember all the previous times – but, for the moment, better to avoid jumping to conclusions, await information, and think of the victims.