The Boston bombing brings the whole question of terrorism front and center again, and so it is worthwhile to discuss what the point of terrorism is, considered as a tactic. In the case of the Boston horror, we do not yet know which direction the tactic was pushing, but we should make a point of knowing how such pushes are designed to work.
Terrorism aims at eliciting particular political responses from the targeted society. Those responses would include weariness, fragmentation, self-accusation, coddling of the perpetrating group, and immediate politicization. It does not aim at creating a united and angry response toward the perpetrators of the terrorism. If it were to do that, it would be a failure as a tactic. This means that the targeted society must be soft, not hard. Terrorism works only on cultures that are adrift.
Just as angry dogs can smell fear, so the terrorist mind can smell the presence of a society upon which such a tactic will work. When I was a young man, there was no problem bringing your Bowie knife onto the plane in your carry on. I remember when high-jackings were the new and latest thing — and before that, they weren’t. The thing that protected our planes before airport security was obviously not airport security — it was a cultural security.
When a culture has not yet had a failure of nerve, the terrorists (who are always present somewhere) have to get up their nerve to attempt the next outrageous thing. The Boston bombing signals a move into our next chapter with this stuff. What is it that protects us from terrorist attacks? It is not the TSA. It is not security.
What is it that protects small town Friday night football games in Alabama? It isn’t security. How hard would it be to get a bomb into that stadium? How hard would it be to get an explosive device into the mall nearest you? In a free society, it would be, and will continue to be, the easiest thing in the world. The only reason it hasn’t happened yet (although it is now starting to happen) is that the perpetrators don’t want to push too far or too hard — if they get unified blowback, they overplayed their hand. So this new era will likely be ushered in by dribs and drabs.
But the early returns from the Boston bombing do represent just the sort of thing that will encourage more of this. Politicians using the bombing to justify gun control. Journalists hoping out loud that the culprit, when found, will be a white tea partier named Earl, and not a jihadist named Ahmed. Immediate political disunity. Conspiracy speculations forming before the debris has finished falling out of the sky. Alex Jones continuing on the payroll of the Bilderbergers.
Terrorist acts are theater — they are violent, but they are still theater. They are calculated to elicit a particular set of responses from the audience. Our security operations like the TSA are counter-theater — security theater. With a great show of thoroughness, they prevent you from taking more than 3 ounces of contact lens solution onto the plane. If that makes anybody feel better about our safety, then that person is a big part of the problem.
A dissolute free society can be worked, and is, even now, being worked. A terrorist act achieves just the sort of outcome that they want. Anybody who wants to answer this horror with a federal department of “marathon security” is a big part of our problem. Ten years from now, when you are going through a metal detector in order to get to your kid’s parks and rec soccer game, don’t look at me and tell me it is a small price to pay to protect our liberty. What liberty?
A virtuous free society doesn’t need security everywhere — because terrorist acts, while physically possible everywhere, could not achieve results that the terrorists would ever want. But . . . here it is . . . you knew it was coming . . . no virtue without the blood of Jesus.