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Tactical teams drive through a neighborhood while searching for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in Watertown, Mass., on April 19, 2013. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
Tactical teams drive through a neighborhood while searching for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in Watertown, Mass., on April 19, 2013. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Steve Saideman

Is this week’s terrorism news encouraging, or terrifying? It’s all perspective Add to ...

The Tsarnaev brothers were clearly not criminal masterminds – just criminals. Mother Jones magazine listed The 11 Most Mystifying Things the Tsarnaev Brothers Did, ranging from what the younger brother wore at the marathon to sticking around in Boston after the fact to running out of cash. We will probably be able to add to the list as we learn more.

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But for me, I don’t know whether to feel more relief or more anxiety that these two guys were able to kill three people and injure more than a hundred people. They were – ahem – not bright. So does that tell us that folks who do this kind of thing – self-radicalized terrorists – can do some damage, but much less than, say, the damage caused by an unregulated fertilizer distributor? Or, if these un-geniuses could do this much damage, what would happen if some actually sharp terrorists were at work?

I can easily see both sides of this. I guess the picture is complicated enough that there are elements that should worry us and elements that should provide some solace.

In the worry category:

- That the younger brother was so easily turned from a pretty decent life as a middling student with plenty of friends to an ally of his more messed up brother.

- That it only took two self-radicalized folks to disrupt the life of a city for nearly a week.

- That despite their obvious cognitive limitations, they were able to build a number of bombs that mostly worked.

- That they might not have been caught so soon if they were not such idiots.

In the solace category:

- That the Boston medical and first-responder community was so competent that all of the patients who reached the hospital alive survived.

- That the terrorists were tracked down and contained within about 100 hours. We tend to be an impatient people, but that is some fast work.

- That perhaps brighter folks are less likely to do this kind of thing because they are smart enough to sense that they would get caught, that maybe it ain’t worth it, that maybe the U.S. isn’t actually at war with Islam even if it is at war in Muslim countries (Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya were essentially pro-Muslim interventions, right?).

Yes, there are plenty of smart folks who are radicalized, but they may still be deterred.

Hopefully, there are few people so messed up that they would be willing to get their younger brothers involved in something so self-destructive.

Canada is facing similar questions this week after two men were arrested in an apparent plot to attack a train. Is this bad news because there were individuals in Canada planning to harm Canadians? Or is it good news because the authorities received a tip from an individual in the Muslim community? It is too early to speculate about this plot, the plotters, or how these individuals were found, but we are again left with mixed feelings.

I really have no clue how to think about this. I am not an expert on terrorism or terrorists or radicalization or anything really related to this. I am just aware that one of the greatest dangers right now is confirmation bias: that we will observe that which confirms our point of view and ignore that which does not.

So, if one is already alarmed by the state of the world and the terrorist threats that might be out there, then this past week will only exacerbate one’s fears. If one is more upbeat about how governments are handling terrorism, then this past week may reinforce that viewpoint, even if it means glossing over or ignoring some of the more disturbing aspects of Boston and the train plot.

And if one is ambivalent? The good news about being ambivalent is that you have fewer biases to confirm and might be more willing to see both sides of the situation. Of course, that is just a recipe for enlightened confusion.

Stephen Saideman is the Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University. This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub OpenCanada.

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