Skip to main content
doug saunders

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

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.

The problem is that, when we call it the same thing, our response tends to become homogenous, too. And year after year, decade after decade, we respond by turning criminal or political atrocities into "terror," a vague challenge to our day-to-day comfort. So the first response, then, is to defiantly keep being ourselves. For a century, that has been the first answer.

Listen to Barack Obama, on Wednesday: "These small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build, and think somehow that makes them important – that's what they don't understand: Our faith in each other, our love for each other, our love for country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial differences there may be – that is our power," he said. "That's why a bomb can't beat us … We don't cower in fear. We carry on."

Or to Tony Blair on the afternoon of July 7, 2005: "They are trying to use the slaughter of innocent people to cow us, to frighten us out of doing the things we want to do, of trying to stop us going about our business as normal … When they try to intimidate us, we will not be intimidated, when they seek to change our country, our way of life by these methods, we will not be changed."

You can hear the same speech, almost word for word, in the 48 hours after almost any such atrocity – before the identities of the assailants are known, when we need a message to fill the silence.

I believe this habit began on the morning of Sept. 18, 1920. The day before, a bomb blast surprisingly like the one that hit the Boston Marathon struck the busy streets of Lower Manhattan. It was the first time in history that a bomb had been used in quite this way, and The New York Times pulled a word out of obscurity to describe the act.

"The most reasonable theory of the explosion is that it was intended as a terrorizing demonstration. It is not the first. It surely will not be the last," the Times wrote in an editorial bearing the then-novel headline "To Put Down Terrorists." The editorialists then set to work employing a set of phrases to become clichés:

"In what spirit and by what means are we to face and overcome the stealthy and lethal attempts to overthrow the established order by deeds of violence and horror? There should be no yielding to panic fear. That would be to make the assassins believe that they had half succeeded. They aim to intimidate. The community must show that it is not to be intimidated. … By keeping cool and firm we begin their defeat."

What caused this new concept, and this new language of defiance, to enter our lexicon so quickly? There had been plenty of bombings before 1920. But dynamite had to this point been used only to target specific individuals, or institutions, or buildings, or forces (such as the police) – not entire societies. Bomb attacks were aimed at "the enemy" in an undeclared ideological civil war, and attacks were designed to avoid bystanders.

But on the morning of Sept. 17, as the bomb-laden horse carriage pulled up to J.P. Morgan at Wall Street and Broad in Manhattan, bystanders were the only intended target. The blast, to the numerous First World War veterans who witnessed it, resembled the worst form of warfare: "For many," writes historian Michael Martinez, "the devastation strained credulity. Body parts and shrapnel seemed to be everywhere. A few victims, still conscious and experiencing excruciating pain, cried out for help. At least one man engulfed in fire screamed 'Save me! Save me! Put me out!' A woman eviscerated by flying shards was still alive, but she died when rescuers tried to move her. Witnesses reported watching a woman with no arms cry for help."

And then, as people plunged into dazed silence, the traditional response emerged. First, the utterance of "terrorism" in The Times and a score of other voices. Then the defiant return to normality: J.P. Morgan's bank workers all showed up the next morning, many with their heads and hands bandaged from the flying glass, in a show of solidarity that amazed even the banker's family.

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.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe