HKS Faculty and Fellows Share Thoughts on Boston Marathon Bombings

April 24, 2013

In the wake of last Monday's tragic Boston Marathon bombings, the city and the nation are once again struggling to understand the implications of domestic terrorism. Several Harvard Kennedy School faculty members are offering their perspectives on the tragedy, the tremendous efforts by law enforcement and the medical community, and on the city's dogged determination to move forward.

Nicholas Burns: Challenges, both here and abroad (Boston Globe, April 25)

After the Boston bombing attacks and frenetic manhunt late last week, the city and the country are debating lessons we should heed to prevent other such tragedies in the future. In some ways, the week after has illuminated a tale of two cities — unity and resolve in Boston and a more fractious and predictably rancorous red/blue debate in Washington and the country at large.

Bostonians are experiencing the aftermath of the city’s first modern terrorist attack — a mixture of loss and pain combined with unity and pride in how well public officials managed the crisis. When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured Friday night under the glare of the international spotlight, residents of Watertown cheered the police — the mark of a secure, civil, and tight community. Indeed, One Fund Boston, created within days of the bombing, has now raised over $20 million to help the more than 180 victims.

But as we turn to face the inevitable questions of why and how the perpetrators carried out the attack and what it means for the country at large, there is far less unity and certainty. Twitter and the blogosphere have been lit up by controversies big and small, from the legal issues surrounding the upcoming trial of the younger Tsarnaev brother to whether the FBI was deficient in not pursuing Russia’s concern about growing Islamic radicalization of the older brother in 2011 to 2012.

Juliette Kayyem: The New Normal? (Boston Globe, April 25)

Resiliency once applied only to hurricanes and other natural disasters. Then, after the 9/11 attacks elicited a sense of existential horror, scholars who promoted the “bounce back” theory were stymied by questions about whether America’s fortitude, which so often held strong during an earthquake or storm, would again dissipate into anger and aggression when inexplicable violence disrupted our civic life. Where we are now, as a city and as a nation, serves to silence that debate. It turns out that recovery from a terrorist attack can be orderly and efficient. Step by step, we are following an emerging pattern.

Richard Parker: After Boston: The Banality of Shock and Sentiment (The Nation, April 26)

It’s Sunday and Harvard and Cambridge have started to recover a sense of normalcy—but not quite.

Yesterday my older son texted me the picture of his friend Sylvan with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and their dates, headed off to the high school prom three years ago. My younger son had come home Monday, reporting that one of his schoolmates, a girl who wanted to be a ballerina, had been among the 170 injured at the Marathon finish line. Since then, we’ve learned she’s lost her leg.

Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan freed the driver of the Mercedes SUV they hijacked, after killing the MIT policeman, at the Shell station where I’ve bought gas for years, and then fled into the Watertown neighborhood where I used to take my boys for baseball practice. The brothers lived, I learned a few hours ago, just two blocks from the hockey rink where my sons have skated for more than a decade. We’ve driven past the triple-decker where the Tsarnaev boys grew up hundreds of times.

Marisa Porges: Terrorist Next Door (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 21)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - As I write this, helicopters circle overhead, monitoring the ongoing hunt for the alleged Boston Marathon bomber. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a 19-year-old Cambridge resident said to be the second attacker, grew up a few blocks away and went to high school down the street. He is, literally, the kid next door.

Most Americans think that the battlefield for terrorism is overseas. I, too, have spent the last few years studying terrorist groups abroad, interviewing violent extremists in Afghanistan, Yemen, and beyond, and evaluating the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism efforts internationally.

But events over the last week - simultaneous blasts at the Boston Marathon finish line that killed three and injured more than 170, the tense law enforcement investigation that followed, and the manhunt that continues at this moment - are a haunting reminder that the terrorist threat is alive and well in America. That we are not immune.

Over the last few years, U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned with the potential growth of homegrown terrorism. There have been dozens of attempted domestic terror attacks thwarted by law enforcement and a concerning trend in terrorism worldwide - the ever more decentralized nature of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates, and increasing numbers of self-radicalized, violent jihadists who target their home countries.

Simon Saradzhyan: Russia, U.S. may face a shared threat (Boston Globe, April 19)

The terrorists who wreaked deadly havoc by bombing the Boston Marathon and then going on a shooting spree in nearby towns did not disclose the reasons behind their actions or claim responsibility for the attack.

But as evidence emerges, more is becoming known about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers suspected of carrying out the attacks. They were reportedly devout Muslims who were born into a family of ethnic Chechens, lived in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, and studied in Russia’s North Caucasus, before coming to the United States as children. Over time, the older brother, Tamerlan, became a more radical figure. Whatever his motivation, he was following a similar path to that of some insurgents in the North Caucasus, who once focused on achieving secular independence for their homeland, but went on to become intertwined in international jihadist networks that share a belief that their number one enemy is America.

Members of these networks have been reported to have fought US troops in Afghanistan and planned attacks against America’s allies in Europe. Until now, members of these networks refrained from attacking the United States. However, given America’s involvement in the Greater Middle East and its counterrorism partnership with Russia, it would not be surprising if militant Islamists from the North Caucasus have started to turn their attention to the United States.

Nicholas Burns: After the Boston Marathon bomb attacks: What we've learned (Global Post, April 18)

The terrorist attacks in Boston this week — the first in its long history — sent shock waves through our community. Their visual and visceral impact will stay with us for years to come.

Amid the shock, grief and anger, what can we learn?

There are immediate lessons for Bostonians but also for the country at large and our many allies overseas.

One of the most profound lessons was learned right here at home — planning, training and attentiveness can help to mitigate even the worst disasters.

The incredible heroism and professionalism of the first responders on Boylston Street — the Boston Police, Fire Department and EMT— saved countless lives. And had it not been for the extraordinary doctors and nurses at our peerless hospitals close by, the number of dead and severely wounded would have surely been much higher.

David Gergen: Boston Never Surrenders (, April 16)

...if these cowards thought they would scare this city -- that their acts of terror would actually terrorize -- they picked the wrong place. Boston, as President Barack Obama so rightly said Monday night, is a "tough and resilient town" -- always has been and always will be. It will heal but will not forget; it will care for the wounded but will make the murderers pay their price....

Monday's bombings shattered any feeling of safety. People here looked with horror into the abyss. But count on it: Boston is still alive with the spirit of Abigail Adams. Great necessities will call out great virtues, and qualities that may seem dormant will wake into life, forming the character of new heroes and new leaders.

Edward Glaeser: Vulnerable cities prove resilient after attacks (Bloomberg News, April 16)

After the World Trade Center's destruction, many wondered whether terrorism would permanently discourage urban density. Yet New York proved resilient and so will Boston. After millions of square feet of central office space were destroyed in 2001, the question was whether fear would push the people away from urban towers, streets and subways.

While terrorists have continued to kill in cities such as London and Madrid, urban areas in the U.S. have been relatively free from such explosions for a decade. This new attack reminds us of the need for precautions against those risks. Cities, like airplanes, can be made far safer, though protection comes at a cost of both money and liberty.

The view that terrorism inevitably makes cities less attractive understands only that they are natural targets. Yet the compact nature of a place also means it can be defensible and even a harbor. Urban density has also raised risks of ordinary crime, contagious disease and devastating fire, but we have successfully made cities healthier and safer.

Michael Ignatieff: Boston shows us why we will never accept the fate that results from terrorism (Toronto Globe and Mail, Apri 17)

Terror seeks to destroy much more than our trust in others. It works its way into our heads by making us mistrust our own judgment. We know now that one unwitting decision can put us in the path of the shrapnel.

But we also know that we can’t keep second-guessing our judgment or the judgment of those charged to protect us. We have no choice but to put our trust in fate. We have to put our trust in each other. Terrorist attacks remind us what we owe each other and how deeply coded inside us this is. You could see the instincts of solidarity firing up in the streets of Boston on Monday: strangers holding strangers, applying tourniquets, pulling down barricades to get at bloodied victims.

Stephen Walt: On the Boston Marathon Attacks (Foreign, April 16)

We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures -- as Massachusetts officials did before [Monday's] race -- and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal's motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.

But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America -- or the rest of the world -- is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.

Juliette Kayyem: A Spectator Event with No Doors (Boston Globe, April 16)

Government officials already have two key sources of evidence: Forensic analysis from the bomb, which will show what kind of attack it was, will be combined with eyewitness reports of who was around and what they might have been doing. The finish line is secured for many days before the event, so chances are that the attack took place just as the scene got very hectic.

The investigation will include two streams of intelligence: foreign and domestic. The FBI will have the lead on both, with the support of a web of federal, local, and state agencies. Even with no person or group taking credit (an indicator of domestic, not international, ties), this isn’t an attack that leaves no trace.

The full-court press now on display by local, state, and federal officials is a sign of competence. There is no such thing as overkill at this stage, not in the immediate hours after the event. A show of force coupled with a sense of caution is wise, even as rumors swirl that can’t be confirmed right now.

Photo of memorial site

The makeshift Marathon bombing victims' memorial on Boylston Street. 
Photo Credit: Jim Smith, Belfer Center

"...if these cowards thought they would scare this city -- that their acts of terror would actually terrorize -- they picked the wrong place. Boston, as President Barack Obama so rightly said Monday night, is a "tough and resilient town" -- always has been and always will be." -- David Gergen

Photo of makeshift memorial

Residents express well wishes for bombing victims.
Photo Credit: Matt Cadwallader, HKS Communications

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