The Boston Marathon Over-Reaction

The intense response to the Boston Marathon bombings including a government shutdown of metropolitan Boston and hysterical national news coverage sent troubling messages, both on civil liberties and the U.S. susceptibility to terrorist-inspired disruptions, says Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland.

By Ivan Eland

The bomb attack on innocent civilians and subsequent shooting of two law enforcement officials was a reprehensible act of terrorism, but the saturation media coverage and resulting societal frenzy is unwarranted and actually harmful. Apparently, the lone surviving terrorist, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, told the FBI, before receiving notice of his Miranda rights, that he and his brother had acted alone and that no other plots were afoot.

That this was a “lone wolf” (in this case wolves) attack that had little outside support from a major terrorist group had become likely long before the younger Tsarnaev admitted it. The first clue was the crude nature of the bombs, which were pipe bombs or used mere gunpowder combined with pressure cookers and simple timers. The bombers may have learned how to build them from looking at jihadist websites on the Internet.

President Barack Obama meets with members of his national security team to discuss developments in the Boston bombings investigation, in the Situation Room of the White House on April 19, 2013. Pictured, from left, are: FBI Director Robert Mueller; Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; Attorney General Eric Holder; Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken; and Vice President Joe Biden. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Second, the hapless terrorists had no escape plan from the marathon and apparently stayed around to watch the carnage, oblivious to the plethora of security and media cameras focused on the finish line. In the ensuing days, the bombers not only stayed around the Boston area, but instead of laying low, went after the police. Finally, the amateur terrorists carjacked a vehicle, apparently told the owner of their future plans of causing mayhem in New York City and after the owner escaped were tracked by police from the GPS in a cell phone.

Although law enforcement authorities don’t like to admit it, because it undermines their effort to hype the terrorist threat to get more money and personnel “lone wolf” terrorists pose a much lesser threat than highly trained organized terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. Yes, even morons can kill four people, and we are probably lucky it wasn’t more, but effective mass casualty attacks, such as those on 9/11, require more training, skill, support, and, well, luck to pull off.

That is why the sensational media coverage of the incident in Boston was unwarranted. The accidental explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas occurring at roughly the same time killed more people and yet was a back-page story. To pay attention, the American media and public apparently need a diabolical villain on U.S. soil.

Also on the back pages at the same time were 185 Nigerians killed in an incident involving the organized Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram, and the uncovering of an organized al-Qaeda plot to derail a train in Canada. These more serious incidents were underreported because the U.S. media, reflecting Americans’ demand for news, realize that they don’t care much if there are no U.S. casualties (the same is true in foreign wars, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the American public and media insist on meticulous counting of and showing photos of American war dead but don’t pressure the U.S. military to account for the much more numerous indigenous casualties).

The overwrought, around-the-clock media coverage (or the potential for it) of events such as the Boston Marathon bombing leads local, state and federal officials to overreact in their response. The authorities completely shut down the city of Boston and some suburbs, requiring people to stay inside. However, during similar “lone wolf” sniper attacks in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in 2002, authorities made no effort to close down those suburbs or the city.

One might say that no bomb attacks occurred in Washington, whereas they did in Boston, but authorities in the Washington area didn’t know that the snipers, at least one with readily apparent military training, didn’t have that up their sleeves too. Also, during the 9/11 attacks, by an order of magnitude, the most serious and lethal terrorist attack by a small group in history, killing almost 3,000 people, Washington and New York weren’t shut down and people weren’t confined to what amounts to house arrest.

In fact, this author was walking around the ghost town of downtown Washington doing media interviews putting the attacks in perspective, as smoke rose from the Pentagon. One wonders how many people died in the Boston area because they felt discouraged from going outside to hospitals to treat what turned out to be life threatening medical problems of natural causes, probably many more than the five killed in the bombings and subsequent shootings (counting one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev).

Requiring all people to stay in their homes when their chances of getting killed by a terrorist are still remote not only could threaten their well-being or their lives but also threatens their liberties and is exactly what the terrorists want.

Thomas Menino, the mayor of Boston, admitted that a goal of the marathon bombers, as with most terrorists, was disruption. Thus, closing the city helped the terrorists achieve one of their goals. The intense media coverage helps them achieve another, getting publicity. Such excess publicity often leads to copycat terrorists, who seek the limelight, and shows more dangerous, organized terror groups that American society is vulnerable to disruption.

In such crises, the media and public often take their cues from government officials. Hyping the threat from feckless terrorists and draconian responses, such as a lockdown of a major metropolitan area, by officials lead to hysterical responses on the part of the media and public.

Yet officials, usually looking to show they are doing something decisive about the problem and to gain more authority and resources, have few incentives to put the threat in perspective and take measured responses that minimize restriction of civil liberties. After all, the average American has about the same chance of being killed by a terrorist as being killed by an asteroid hitting the earth (and less of a chance than being killed by lightning). In Boston, perhaps the odds were slightly greater, but not by much.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

11 comments for “The Boston Marathon Over-Reaction

  1. hammersmith46
    May 2, 2013 at 03:34

    The “Great Privileged White Folks Turkey Trot Bombing.”

  2. Hillary
    May 1, 2013 at 14:04


    Cultivated Islamophobia seems to be the problem.
    Jews make up less than 0.2% of mankind and Muslims 25% .
    “There is no country in the world in which use of official and sustained torture is established and documented as is in the case of Israel,” – Amnesty International.

  3. rosemerry
    May 1, 2013 at 03:06

    reprehensible act of terrorism? to what end? There seems no benefit to be gained by alleged chechen/russian/ islamist American citizens causing mayhem and overreaction then getting shot/arrested/spiling their guts to police and allowing hatred to spread even further in the paranoid US society.
    I am disappointed as the assumption that the suspects are guilty, and the repetition of stories of hijacks and stolen cars and holdups, which have been shown to be false.

  4. Nicholas Wakefield
    April 30, 2013 at 23:09

    I’m sure that most Europeans (like me) agree that BOSTON was an overreaction. And that 99% of the US Americans don’t. I personally think that terror is hyped-up in the USA when you put the real risks in perspective with numbers (statistics I have them: if iterested mail me ….). Terror is bad and dispicable. Police reaction should however always balanced and professional. Before and after an attack.

    • davidgmills
      May 2, 2013 at 12:21

      You might be selling us short. I bet a whole lot more than 1% of Americans think Boston was an over reaction. If it weren’t for our prestitute media I bet a majority of Americans would think that and a majority might believe it anyway.

  5. Hillary
    April 30, 2013 at 20:26

    “To pay attention, the American media and public apparently need a diabolical villain on U.S. soil.”

  6. lastcamp2
    April 30, 2013 at 09:29

    “When in trouble, or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!”

    I guess we are living in an era when “extreme” is more than just part of the popular culture, but is becoming a fixture of public policy.

  7. Noelle
    April 30, 2013 at 09:23

    Insulting that one would compare a freak accident as the fertilizer plant explosion to an act of terror. Further, we were never required to “shelter down”, only advised.

    • lastcamp2
      April 30, 2013 at 09:35

      First, the fertilizer explosion was not a “freak” accident, but one which appears to be the result of gross negligence on the part of management. These things don’t just happen at random.

      Secondly, when a population of millions is advised to stay in the house, it might as well be an order. And it appears those who stayed in were more at risk from being rousted by the police reaction than if they had simply gone about there business – absent the serious overreaction of the militarized police response.

      It is a greater insult to infantilize an entire population in order to facilitate an authoritarian reaction to what turned out to be a relatively insignificant risk. As the author points out, more harm was likely caused by the reaction than by the bombing itself.

    • F. G. Sanford
      April 30, 2013 at 18:36

      I gotta agree with lastcamp2 on this one. In the United states, there are approximately 4,900 fatalities annually, ostensibly due to violations of workplace safety regulations. The fertilizer plant in question was storing 1,300 times as much explosive material on the premises as is permitted by existing regulations. The chemical industry, through Dick Cheney’s son in law, lobbied to have oversight of these regulations shifted to Homeland Security rather than the EPA, because they regarded the EPA as “unfriendly”. After the incident, it was realized that Homeland “wasn’t aware that the plant even existed”. I have to admit, that’s pretty friendly indeed. As for the response to the awful tragedy in Boston, every terrorist looking to get public attention will remember the images of body-armoured, helmeted cops riding in armored vehicles and carrying assault weapons. What they’ll remember won’t be “Boston Strong”. What they’ll remember is Boston with it’s tail between its legs.

    • rosemerry
      May 1, 2013 at 03:00

      Freak accident???? when all safety rules had been ignored for years?
      Terror? when nobody claimed responsibility or asked for any result? the suspects have been assumed to be guilty, are conveniently Muslims and linked to the old enemy-Russia. Perfect for our leaders.

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