America woke up to the Caucasus this week; and, unfortunately, it was not quite the awakening anyone would have wished. In the West, Chechnya had hitherto been the purview of a select few: academics, scholars, and perhaps a journalist or activist or two with an interest in far away places with unpronounceable names. Russia’s annihilation of Grozny didn’t really ring a bell with too many; and the tremendous horrors of Beslan had long migrated from one-minute news bites into the back recesses of most people’s memories. But in an era when places with unpronounceable names suddenly become relevant as soon as they are connected with that ‘T’ word – you probably know which one I mean – Chechnya suddenly received its share of attention. And for all the wrong reasons.
Twitter pundits and Wikipedia experts latched on to the two perpetrators’ ethnicities to spew out a raft of platitudes about ‘Iranian-funded Al Qaeda terrorists’ in the ‘eternally savage and ungovernable’ Caucasus. The media went into a feeding frenzy, tracing the two brothers’ each and every move over the past twenty-six odd years: Chechnya, Dagestan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, the United States, what they’d had for breakfast that morning. Meanwhile, the whole city of Boston was shut down: businesses were closed, public transport halted, citizens told to stay home. All it took to grind an American metropolis of four million to a halt were, it appears, two pressure cookers, some ammonium nitrate (assumedly), and a couple of dark-haired blokes with weird-sounding names, including a teenager.
You might say that one can never be too careful when it comes to the ‘T’ word. Perhaps. But then again, the question was, from the very beginning, whether this was indeed an act of terror. Terrorism is - always, by definition - a tactic in the service of higher political aims. Its motivations are, invariably, political; its primary method is the spread of fear. Al Qaeda’s motives for 9/11 were complex, but included the removal of US troops from the Arab peninsula, a clear, specific demand of the organisation since the early 1990s. The ('non-terroristic') motives of the killers at Columbine, on the other hand, were entirely egotistical: a nihilistic reaction against alienation and rejection, a personal wish to “go out with a bang”. Motive is what differentiates the act of terror from the act of a criminal (or madman).
But if so, where were the brothers’ political demands? None had been posted in the days following the Boston Marathon attacks. In fact, as it stood, the only known factors differentiating the Tsarnaevs from the killers at Columbine (and Thurston, and Sandy Hook…) were their use of explosives, and their ethnicity. Being of Chechen extraction was, on its own, apparently enough to assume this was not the act of isolated sociopaths – the fallback narrative when white Christian males go berserk with guns and/or explosives – but of ‘terrorists’. I doubt many would recall the ethnicity of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or Jeffrey Weise; I doubt many would even remember which atrocities these particular names refer to. I have to admit it: I had to look them up myself. That would not have been necessary in the case of Mohammed Atta.
In the days and weeks to come, we might indeed finally uncover the two brothers’ motives. And, naturally, it matters greatly whether these two young men acted out of a dissipated sense of marginalisation, or a more organised militant subordination to a Chechen-nationalist or Jihadist cause. On one level, however, all of this remains strangely irrelevant to understanding the counterproductive nature of the Boston lock-down: whatever the Tsarnaev’s motives: terrorists and mad-men will have been greatly emboldened.
The US government’s knee-jerk reactions will have shown the former how their actions on the US mainland – aimed precisely at spreading ‘terror’ for political aims – are thankfully amplified by both the media and the authorities in their aftermath. Their handlers – if they indeed had any – will note that two pressure-cookers and a little determination are all it takes to make a major political point. And if the Tsarnaevs were simply a couple of “losers” - their uncle’s word, not mine - on a murderous ego-trip, it will have confirmed to any similarly disturbed US individuals a simple truth: that the ‘bang’ in ‘going out with a bang’ is nowadays afforded a major boost by both government and society. Again, a few well-placed home-made pressure-cooker bombs will be all that is required to achieve your fifteen minutes of immense power and fame. Either way, this going over the top will just encourage atrocity over the longer term.
A second reason why this this overreaction matters is much more fundamental, and touches on the very core on the rights and freedoms that make up open societies. And here, it behoves to remind oneself of the central logic that underlies America’s system of governance: the Founding Fathers’ fundamental distrust of power, expressed in its containment and dilution through unassailable civil rights and a marvellously complicated and cumbersome system of government. Much will be said in coming months about what happened during the previous week, among others by some very powerful people. And those centres of power will have a natural interest in overreacting, regardless of whether this is an act of terror.
They will have an interest in blurring the border between motivation and rationalisation, portraying the two brothers’ crimes as ‘terror’ even if ‘politics’ may just have provided a loose excuse for a violent reaction to disenchantment with the American dream. They will be tempted to further chip away at rights and freedoms that have already been under assault, in the United States and throughout the world, since 9/11. They will, in other words be lured towards further weakening the US constitution’s central idea: that power, once unconstrained and undiluted, creates its own temptations. Abroad, they will be enticed towards using Boston to justify the violation of the fundamental human rights of strangers in those 'far away places with unpronounceable names'.
Already, the powers-that-be are using the assumption of ‘terrorism’ to reportedly do away with the suspect’s Miranda rights – and essential part of Habeas Corpus. And there has been quite a lot of ‘chatter’ about the use of domestic drones and a ‘strengthening’ of homeland security, some of it from very influential people. Abroad, the Russians have been eagerly pursuing their own agenda, interested in tapping the current climate of fear and dismay as a potential public-relations fig leaf for their imperial misrule of the North Caucasus, among others, through dictatorial tiger-owning viceroys.
Real security – for the United States’ inhabitants, for people further afield, and for the values that make America America at home and abroad – will require that cool, and distrustful heads prevail throughout society: rethinking some of the more hysterical decisions of the past week - indeed, the past 12 years - and resisting the temptation of the powerful to amass yet more power. It will require accepting that the openness of a society inevitably entails risks, risks that can only be minimised, not eliminated.
After all, what are temptations for, save to be resisted?