Reflecting on Terrorism

“What difference does it make why they did it?” Chris Matthews said on his eponymously named MSNBC show Monday night. Matthews was referring, of course, to Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Attempting to avoid injecting religion into the discussion, Matthews showed exactly why the motivation behind the bombings is so important for us to understand.

We now know that the older brother, Tamerlan, was influenced by radical Islamic clerics espousing a religion far different from that of the majority of Muslims. Over the last year, he had multiple outbursts at a mosque in Cambridge, Massachusetts over what he saw as the church discarding Islamic doctrine: allowing Muslims to celebrate American holidays, such as Thanksgiving, and praising Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon. Last year, Tamerlan traveled to Russia where he attended a “notorious radical mosque” according to Time magazine, but returned to the United States after about six months.

Matthews wanted to discard this religious influence because he sought to avoid the public blaming Islam as a whole for the attacks. I sympathize with Matthews and others who want to avoid the broader narrative that equates Islam and Muslims with terrorism. But, the religion followed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev is almost an entirely different one from that practiced by most Muslims.

When terrorism happens, you have to look at the motivation, whether it happens in Newtown, Connecticut or Boston, Massachusetts. You have to ask, where did these individuals get the idea to commit the act? Who pulled the trigger, and why? We can identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s ties to radical Islam. But, we also know that the brothers were not acting in direct concert with other individuals, making the situation much more complex.

Matthews’ suggestion that the “why” is irrelevant makes little sense in this context. Without understanding the reasons the brothers carried out this attack, we are left with no comprehension of how others may acquire the ideas and means to launch future attacks.

Ever since 9/11, there has been a worry that with all the new security measures in airports and government buildings that terrorists would turn to more localized attacks in the traditionally “safe” areas of our society: at sporting events, in shopping malls, and other places we frequent in our daily lives. My concern is that the Boston Marathon bombings could be a turning point toward more attacks in these much less secure locations.

Though the Marathon bombings were less destructive than the attacks of 9/11, they nevertheless put Americans on edge. Perhaps, we have just gone from one tragedy to the next over the past year. First, the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado last July. Then, the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. This latest event is yet another tragedy. Forces of evil have wreaked havoc on the American psyche, whether manifested in troubled college-age students or terrorists. Preventing these attacks in the future is more difficult than, say, increasing airport security, as the location and nature of the attacks are different in each case.

And, the perpetrators can be harder to identify. While the FBI missed important details about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia despite being on a terrorist watch list, Tamerlan’s younger brother Dzhokhar was a typical FIFA-playing college sophomore who no one suspected would commit such horror. In this day and age of constant communication via the internet and cell phones with people far away, there is so much that one individual can hide from the public eye.

The Boston Marathon bombings hit home for me in multiple ways. Being from New Hampshire, I am in the city frequently. I’ve gone to the Starbucks off Copley Square that had its windows shattered by one of the bombs. The investigation into the bombings really hit home when Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took to the streets of Watertown, Massachusetts, leaving residents in a state of panic. One of my best friends lives in the neighborhood right up the hill from where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was eventually found. I waited for the bus every morning on the corner of the street he was found every day last summer to commute into the city. I watched the developments far too late into the morning last Friday in utter disbelief.

This is exactly what attacks like the Marathon bombings are supposed to do: touch the places we know with terror. Asking “why” these attacks have occurred does make a difference not only for understanding how we can prevent them, but also to somehow rationalize to ourselves the threat we are up against.

We must stop putting political correctness first and reality second. Pointing out the connection between a radical version of Islam and this terrorist attack is not inaccurate. As we have seen in the past year, evil manifests in numerous ways and for various reasons. Sometimes we can see a larger trend from the attacks, and other times that’s impossible. Matthews’ comments on MSNBC Monday night represent the worst kind of political correctness, one that prevents us from having the necessary to discussions to understand where these attacks came from. We are too strong to engage in political correctness at this moment.

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