Seeing Our Own Bitter Division Through the Prism of Boston Marathon Bombings

Right and Left Can't Agree on Real Threat

getty images

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 19, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Moments after the bombs exploded on Monday, April 15 along the Boston Marathon route, it was already clear what the attack’s main goal was. It was a deliberate assault on America’s public order and national self-confidence. That’s the purpose of all terrorist actions, whoever their perpetrators. They’re intended to terrorize, to unsettle.

That’s why President Obama declared the next morning that beyond the certainty that the crime would be solved, “we also know this: The American people refuse to be terrorized.”

Less obvious was the attack’s secondary impact. Intentionally or not, the bombing opened a new front in America’s ongoing culture wars. Within minutes of the blasts, the Twittersphere came alive with finger-pointing and outraged denials. The right flatly declared it to be jihadi terrorism. The left just as insistently named other possible culprits on the domestic far-right. Each side’s assumptions left the other righteously appalled.

Liberals noted the symbolic timing of the attack, coinciding with Tax Day, Patriot Day and the approaching anniversary of the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, all red meat to far-right extremists. Conservatives simply asserted what was obvious — to them, anyway — given the past decade’s headlines, the upheavals in the Muslim world and repeated attacks on American targets.

Next came indignation. The left accused the right of bigotry for rushing to blame Muslims before any facts were known. The right professed shock at the left’s politically correct denial of the obvious and decried its tarring of patriots and anti-tax protesters — that is, the Republican base.

First out of the box was the New York Post, which reported an hour after the explosions that Boston police were holding a Saudi suspect. Boston police immediately disavowed the report. It later emerged that a Saudi national had been questioned but wasn’t a suspect. By then, however, the Post version had gone viral: More than 3,000 Facebook posts, and 10,000 tweets. Some right-wing websites were hinting at a police “cover-up.”

Some of the indignation reached almost comical proportions. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Monday evening listed past terrorism cases that had been cracked by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, went on to lament that the bureau hasn’t had a director for six years because of Senate obstruction, hinting that this might hamper the Boston investigation — and then promptly said she didn’t want to politicize the crisis.

Bill O’Reilly attacked Obama for calling the attack a “tragedy” rather than “terrorism” at his Monday press conference, even though investigators still weren’t sure what happened, much less how to classify it. By Tuesday morning, commentators from Obama on down were calling it “terrorism.” Also, a “tragedy.”

Amid the fireworks came endless chatter about Americans coming together in crisis. In a way, we did: First responders and bystanders leapt forward in extraordinary acts of heroism, trauma surgeons performed miracles, Bostonians donated blood, ordinary Americans everywhere watched and prayed.

In the moment, that is, we came together and refused to be terrorized. It was afterward, as we grappled with what happened and why, that we came apart.

The debate isn’t new. It’s been percolating for decades. It resurfaces whenever an attack occurs without an obvious perpetrator, and again when a new report attempts to analyze the threats.

Conservatives erupted in April 2009 over a Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism, begun under the Bush administration, that cited rising threats following the economic downturn and election of a black president. Under pressure, Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano finally withdrew the report and reassigned all but one of her domestic terrorism investigators.

In July 2012, House Republicans hammered Napolitano over a training program that examined right-wing threats alongside Muslim extremism. One congressman, Paul Broun of Georgia, complained that security officers were being taught to look for “gun-owner, Christian-conservative, pro-life” types. “That’s me,” Broun said. “How are you going to prevent me from being identified as a terrorist?”

In 2010, liberals protested a House committee hearing on extremism among American Muslims, saying it unfairly tarred an entire faith. Dozens of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have been accused since 2001 of profiling Muslims and spying on mosques. Publicly, police said they weren’t spying. Privately, they said that’s how they catch terrorists.

The numbers suggest that both sides are correct. Available statistics are wildly conflicting, depending on who’s counting and what’s included, but it appears that since 2001, jihadist-inspired American Muslim terrorists have carried out between five and 10 attacks, killing either 17 or 33 people. (The higher numbers include killers who spouted vague Islamist ideology, notably the so-called Beltway Sniper who killed 11 people in 2002.)

In all, between 150 and 172 jihadist terror suspects have been arrested. Significantly, about 45 other attacks were foiled in that period. Some interdictions resulted from intelligence work, others from Muslim community cooperation. That spotlights a dilemma in domestic espionage: It saves some lives, but threatens others by undermining community trust.

In the same period, right-wing domestic terrorists were responsible for at least 16 lethal attacks resulting in 40 deaths. They include white supremacist, anti-government and anti-abortion extremists. Non-lethal incidents include at least nine bomb and arson attacks on abortion clinics.

A dozen others, all domestic right-wingers, were arrested for collecting chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry. In all some 300 far-right terrorists and plotters were arrested. Only a handful of left-wing terror acts occurred, mainly environmental or animal-rights, none lethal.

America has two distinct terrorism problems. Both are serious, but neither poses a strategic, existential threat. Our greatest danger is within ourselves: our inability to listen to each other.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.