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Residents in Watertown, Mass., applaud a police car following the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Residents in Watertown, Mass., applaud a police car following the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

How our reaction to terrorism shapes our future Add to ...

But almost as soon as “normality” and its promotion returned, the consequences of labelling the event as homogenous “terrorism” did, too: Almost at once, the term seemed to sweep up every possible domestic and foreign suspect, and force them under the same dark cloud. At a rally on the scene of the blast the next day – Constitution Day – angry citizen groups called for the mass hanging and expulsion of radicals and foreigners.

The perpetrator, as usual, was not so easy to fit into a group: He had been seen by dozens, but left little impression. “All eye witnesses agreed he sported a swarthy complexion,” Mr. Martinez writes, “but no one could say for sure whether he was Jewish, Italian or some other nationality or race. His height, weight and other distinguishing characteristics were endlessly debated without consensus.”

A series of people were investigated or arrested, most of them becoming figures of media attention and public condemnation: Carlo Tresca, an Italian anarchist, then Mario Buda, another Italian radical, and some radicals of Polish, Russian and Irish descent. Communism, anarchism and trade unionism were targeted as causes.

The spectre of foreign-radical sleeper cells within the United States became a much-discussed possibility.

And, indeed, a justice department bent on winning budget increases and using the attacks as a justification for long-desired action, launched a long string of deportations, prosecutions and investigations against supposedly undesirable foreigners. Yet no actual perpetrator was ever caught.

In the nine decades since, that has often been the unfortunate pattern: An abomination occurs. There is a surge of pride and a quick return to normality. And then, usually before the perpetrator is caught, the blanket label “terrorism” fills the void, leads to a desire for decisive action and casts a net far wider and more severe than the criminal or political threat necessitates.

We’ve seen this in cases, such as Oklahoma City and Atlanta, where the bomber takes a long time to catch: During that period of dark silence, policymakers have filled the void by cracking down on targets near and far. The Sept. 11 attacks were only the most extreme instance of this: The Patriot Act, the Office of Homeland Security, Guantanamo Bay, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars all flowed from the desire to fill that void.

This time, calmer heads have generally prevailed. But the pressure for big, decisive action remains, because the word “terrorism” will link this incident, in the minds of many, to a dozen even more frightening, likely completely unrelated ones, and create a false sense of a larger threat – and perhaps a growing threat.

In fact, it is not growing. The number of terrorist incidents in the United States has declined sharply through the past decade (and has never approached the levels it reached in the 1970s). The vast majority of these incidents are right-wing or otherwise domestic in nature, with Islamic terrorism falling to fewer than 19 incidents or arrests per year (none of them violent in recent years, and most involving fighters going to other countries). But Americans (and to a lesser extent, Canadians) remain fearful and persuaded that the Boston atrocity is part of some large, homogenous phenomenon.

Starting on Friday, the period of blank silence ended and the bombers came to have a name and, most likely, a reason. It then became a major law-enforcement mission to pursue, identify and neutralize any organization or movement that might have caused the alleged suspects, two brothers, to commit an unspeakable crime.

As we learned during the heyday of al-Qaeda, it is worth a major investment of resources to prevent the spread of any such movement. But in the weeks ahead, we can hope that the Americans don’t fall into the old trap, as they have so many times before, of believing all the things they shouted into the silence.

On Friday night, the old pattern seemed to have begun again: Lindsey Graham, an influential moderate Republican senator, declared that the Boston attacks are “Exhibit A of why the homeland is the battlefield,” conflating domestic with international terrorism, and added: “It sure would be nice to have a drone up there,” to spy on domestic threats.

As it was in 1920, it is now: In our efforts to fill the void, we threaten to prolong the ugly aftermath.

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