A busy public place, a dense and peaceful crowd of onlookers, a celebratory moment – and then the sharp rupture of a blast. There are bombs. There is panic, there is destruction, there is tragedy and heroism and death.And then there is emptiness. The next moment, the one that always follows the bomb, is singular: A ringing in the ears, a disoriented searching, a dark flush of horror and grief – and then a profound, disconcerting, lengthy silence. It lasts for days, sometimes for weeks. We know nothing. We do not know where the blast came from, what it was supposed to mean, whether there are more on the way. We look for reason in the misery, and we confront a void.
Our political future is often determined by what we pour into that empty interval – the words we employ during that long moment, before the arrests are made, when we try to make sense of an act that by definition cannot make any reasonable sense. We point to foreign threats and peoples, we point to the neglected menaces and failures within our own society, we raise our security and perhaps lower our tolerance for reduced civil liberties, and in the process we allow a new political moment to take shape.
To a surprising degree, the policies and international actions of Western nations over the past century have been shaped by the decisions made, and the narratives constructed, in those blank days after a bomb.
Major attacks against civilians are extremely rare, but every time they occur, however different they may be, they seem to have the same aftermath – and the same lingering effects. The terrorists may not win, but our countries are shaped forever by the things we shout into the silence.
I have had the misfortune of enduring several of these mornings-after. I was living in the United States on Sept. 12, 2001, and in London on July 8, 2005; I arrived in Oslo the morning after Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of 77 people in 2011; I was in the south of France a year ago when a terrorist killed children and teachers at a Jewish school in Toulouse. And I was in the northeastern United States this week, during the attack and its aftermath, among Americans who, all over again, felt the same heavy weight of grief, raged at the sight of a dead child, gaped at the utter lack of answers, and began coming up with ideas, names, images and words to fill the silence.
The first word to fill the gap is “terrorism.” For almost a century, by my count, we have been uttering this word the morning after the attack as a first answer – and, more often than not, its utterance shapes and proscribes our actions in response, limiting them to a narrow range of options, usually decided before the nature and magnitude of the threat is fully known, in those days of uncertainty.
In Boston, it was uttered within minutes of the marathon blasts, before anyone was even sure what had happened. How could we know it was terrorism? Because it felt like terrorism. How could this be anything like an ordinary murder or attempted assassination or mishap? It had to be an act calculated to spread fear and horror among the public, whatever the larger motive.
But there has never been a good definition of “terrorism.” Millions of words have been expended on this question, with little success. At a bare minimum, many feel that its victims must be be civilians, and that its perpetrators must generally be “non-state actors,” not armies or governments; and that its primary motive must be some sort of mass horror.
Yet the word always seems to obscure more than it reveals. There is not much to unite a domestic terrorist such as Timothy McVeigh, determined to change the structure and operation of his own country by attacking its people and offices (this remains by far the most common form of terrorism in North America) with Eric Rudolph, who bombed the 1996 Atlanta Olympics out of anger at birth control, and Mohamed Atta, a foreigner hoping to humiliate an abstract “West” out of engagement with his imaginary spiritual kingdom. The two brothers assumed to have attacked Boston this week appear to be something else altogether – yet to have enough in common with those forebears to share the same label.