SWAT teams enter a suburban neighborhood to search an apartment

The problem with looking back at the Boston bombing suspects

There’s been a lot of coverage about the Boston terrorist/manhunt over the weekend and we’ll be looking at that later this afternoon. Right now, we wanted to highlight a line from an article in this story in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“It has also been revealed Tamerlan had an application for US citizenship placed on hold after the FBI questioned him on potential Islamic extremist ties, raising questions about whether he could have been identified before carrying out the attack.” (Update: the sentence in question has been removed from an updated version of the story. The pic at the bottom shows the sentence still appearing in cached versions of the story in Google).

This sentence is deserving of its own post because it represents many of the problems surrounding the coverage of events such as this.

Firstly, the article doesn’t specify what exactly it is Tamerlan that they claim could have been “identified” as before carrying out the attack. If they are talking about being a “potential” terrorist, then surely the first half of the sentence would provide an answer to the second half. Tamerlan had already been questioned and had his application for citizenship put on hold.

But, if by “identified” they mean “actual” terrorist, then it becomes a more difficult proposition. It may be semantic. Is one an actual terrorist only when he or she commits an act of terror, or is there a line that’s crossed before that?

In which case, “could have been identified” becomes less a question about semantics and, rather, a a weasel way of asking whether these events could have been prevented based on the fact one of the perpetrators had, at one point, been questioned by the FBI.

There are, at any one time, many potential terrorists within a given country, each generating a whole bunch of noise through their everyday actions and interactions. It’s only after an act of terrorism has occurred that the signal surrounding one of these suspects begins to stand out.

In other words, it’s really easy to look backwards and recognise an actual terrorist after an event. It’s a lot harder to do so before that event has occurred.

Looking over your shoulder and asking why an event wasn’t picked up is useful insofar as it helps us learn for the future. There’s already talk about the FBI being in for tough questioning over the investigation from two years ago. But asking who’s to blame is pointless. Knowing what we know now, of course the attack could have been stopped. But we didn’t know that before. And while the FBI may come under fire for not following up on Tsaraev after he came to America, those accusations are easy to throw around now. But no one was criticising them about this case before this happened, or about other people to whom the full extent of the law and tracking had not been exhausted.

The bigger problem is the fascination with narrative, with explanation, with blame, surrounding events like this. We like to make sense of things, and the media likes to reflect that back to us. When senseless things happen, we react this way. But it’s not helpful.

The offending sentence has been removed from updated versions of the story, but more facts will continue to come out about the incident in Boston, and there’ll be further temptation to string each isolated fact into a damning pattern of intent to commit terrorism.

The fact is that bad things happen and will continue to happen regardless of the resources and intelligence available – especially when it’s on such a small scale. And it was, by the way, on a relatively small scale. What gave it amplification was the reaction to it from law enforcement and the media – which we’ll be writing about tomorrow.