The Boston Marathon Bombing — The Issues Nobody Wants to Talk About

by Rich Rubenstein on April 24, 2013 · 20 comments

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A number of critics have already condemned the shallowness of most news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. The media’s initial “cops and bombers” focus has now given way to an equally myopic concentration on the Tsarnaev brothers’ biographies and personalities, featuring inane questions like “How could such athletic, educated, personable young men have committed such monstrous acts?” What is missing is historical context — not only the tragic history of the Chechen people over the past two decades, but the more accessible story of America’s ill-conceived War on Terror.
Like many of their readers and viewers, reporters seem strangely oblivious of what seems obvious: the terrorist acts in Boston were payback for perceived atrocities by Americans in the two-decade long fight against militant Islamism.
As ghastly as it surely was for those killed, maimed, or traumatized in Boston, the Marathon bombing has to be seen as a minor episode in the struggle now raging across an increasingly wide global arc from the Philippines and Indonesia through South and Central Asia to the Middle East, the Sahel, and sub-Saharan Africa. In pursuit of military victory, we have invaded and occupied Afghanistan, fought a ten-year war of counter-insurgency in Iraq, and given major financial and military support to a host of brutally repressive regimes, as well as engaging in lethal special ops, drone attacks, rendition of suspected terrorists for torture, and other activities that kill or maim both Islamist fighters and civilians. In this light, what is surprising about the Boston attack is not that it occurred but that it did not happen earlier.
Why not recognize that the Tsarnaev brothers were almost certainly responding to American violence against their comrades abroad? One reason is that this would mean confessing that the War on Terror is not succeeding, and that the strategy of trying to win it by killing the leading militants has backfired in several ways:
One: Attacking the infrastructure and killing the commanders of large organizations induces them to decentralize, generating the kind of individual or small group activity we saw manifested in Boston. Large groups often demonstrate strategic restraint when it comes to bringing the war home to nations like the U.S. Tiny grouplets tend to be far less restrained.
Two: Every U.S. attack kills somebody’s son, daughter, brother, sister, or neighbor, and kills or injures non-combatants as well. Every mourner and injured person is a potential avenger and fighter for the Cause. Escalating counter-terrorist violence increases terrorism, especially when there is a large population whose grievances lead them to sympathize with the militants.
Three: All wars have causes. Military action that exacerbates those causes prolongs and expands the war. One cause of the current struggle is Western interference in Muslim nations, which has meant bribing and arming local officials, playing off tribal groups against each other, positioning military bases on their soil, exploiting their natural and human resources, exporting products that many consider unhealthy or immoral . . . and taking sides in their internal wars.
This raises the most important issue of all — one so taboo that nobody seems willing to discuss it. This is the question of peaceful alternatives to the War on Terror. What might the U.S. and other nations do to stop engaging in a self-defeating, potentially endless struggle?
The new discipline of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (CAR for short) provides several promising answers.
CAR practitioners have helped resolved apparently unresolvable conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Basque country of Spain, several former Soviet republics, Mozambique, South Africa, Liberia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and more. They understand that the effective alternative to violent, long-lasting conflict is not conventional negotiation — it is the kind of interactive, problem-solving dialogue that lays bare the causes of the violence and helps the contending parties to imagine new ways of dealing with those causes.
Those who participate most usefully in this sort of process are usually not the combatants themselves but influential figures open-minded enough to consider new ways of working out their differences. Right now, distinguished Americans who fit this description could be sitting down in the Middle East, Pakistan, Somalia, or Nigeria with people who know the minds of the Islamist militants and their sympathizers, in order to discover what their deepest grievances are and to imagine creative and ethical ways of responding. Two keys to the process are that talks be confidential, and that they be facilitated by patient, skilled, entirely impartial conflict resolvers.
At the outset, each side always says, “You can’t talk with those people.” But across the globe, bitter enemies have found that the right kind of dialogue can produce results the parties never dreamed possible.
In any case, why not try now to see if there is an alternative to eye-for-an-eye violence? No war can be justified unless it is a last resort. But in pursuing the War on Terror, we have assumed that anything short of killing Islamists must be seen as a sign of cowardice or weakness. That war is therefore not only counter-productive but unjust.
It is time to put aside our fear, anger, and machismo and to try a better approach: conflict resolution.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

joseph tarantolo April 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Of course!
Both the bombers and the bombed are the scapegoats for the rage and the pain of our larger/world wide community.
The need to” wave the flag ” and extol the virtues of Bostonians is an attempt to expiate guilt and restore a fragile sense of control and power, which we don’t have in reality.
It is possible to both prosecute the perpetrators and empathize with their frustration. It is not either/or. JT


mary April 24, 2013 at 11:04 pm

Bravo! that needs to be said louder and longer to more people. thank you for expressing it.


Joey Katona April 25, 2013 at 2:22 pm

I disagree with the premise of this. By in large, the field of CAR assumes compromise (or its potential), which is flat-out lacking here. The Jihadist forces will not compromise and will resort to any means – legal and mostly illegal – to accomplish their end. We American “war on terror” people do not, by in large, intentionally kill innocent civilians, do not engage in drug smuggling, and the vast majority of us want a peaceful resolution that protects our freedoms, including freedom of religion among others. We have certainly made drastic mistakes in our foreign policy to protect our interests, but we are a society run by the rule of law – and they are sadly not. And if they accomplish their ends, then the democratic process is completely doomed. Thus, ‘conventional’ conflict resolution in my opinion is not particularly appropriate here.


Rich Rubenstein April 25, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I appreciate your views, Joey. But I think you’re making two mistakes. (1) It is not about the Jihadists “compromising.” It is about finding out what’s driving their movement and attracting new supporters to it. We can’t really know this without talking with people close enough to them to understand their deep motivation. And until we know it, we’re flying blind. (2) “We” are not ok (peaceful, law-abiding, etc.) while they are “sadly not.” Ask the people at Guantanamo or in the CIA’s “black prisons” how law-abiding we are. Both sides are essentially decent people driven by extreme circumstances to become killers. Let’s analyze those circumstances — and change them!


Joey Katona April 27, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Putting us and them in an equivalent category morally is wrong. While we do some things that are wrong in an effort to protect ourselves, they are criminals trying to uproot the fabric of a stable society.


Rich Rubenstein April 27, 2013 at 4:25 pm

I guess we do disagree about this. “We” — that is, the U.S. government, not you and me — do things that are wrong NOT in order to “protect ourselves” but to advance the global interests of the great corporations, the military-industrial complex, and the politicians who think that we need to be the world’s policeman and judge. Then, when we get attacked because we’re messing around in someone else’s yard, we claim the right to use violence in self-defense! Obviously, blowing up innocent people in Boston was a gross atrocity. One doesn’t want to co compare degrees of atrociousness, but do you have any idea of what we did to Iraq or Afghanistan? Of the more than 3000 people killed in the past couple of years by drones, 300-500 are thought to be innocent non-combatants. Moral equivalency? I’m afraid so.


Sherry April 26, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Oh yes, let’s get the round a table where we can bring high level conflict resolution experts to sit down and examine what their expectations are, what their perception is of how the west has wronged them. While our brightest and best peace-perusing minds are at that table, they will be taken out by the dude that lined his undies with C4 or a suicide car bomber. You’re an idealist and I applaud you for being able to slip the bonds of cynicism that grip most people today. But your assumption is faulty if you think those that call the shots on either side want peaceful resolution.
Most of the countries that you’ve named we’re at one time, ruled autocratically and supported by the US govt because of some resource they wanted to exploit. The 99%ers of those nations saw the exploitation and rose up against it. Their leaders may have called them to wage a holy war as the best way to galvinize the populace against these rulers. The resulting coupe set up a government that was UNfriendly to western interests. Unsuccessful coupe attempts just drove these militants underground. Their tactics became the guerrilla warfare and terrorism we see today.
Convert or die is the Jihadists war cry. Asking them how to resolve our differences peacefully is ludicrous and dangerously naive.
We could pull out our personnel and walk away from our interests in countries where there is conflict. They’d still point their missiles at Israel and scream that they have no right to exist. And they would be able to grow with their extremist tendencies unchecked by the moderating force of a UN presence.
I certainly don’t wish to kill them but that IS their wish for us. Stop bombing our planes, trains and public events, and we’ll stop trying to take out the leaders of your terrorist organisations.


Rich Rubenstein April 26, 2013 at 7:29 pm

If I understand this comment, it’s essentially that I am naive to suppose that jihadists would want to talk to us. Maybe. But there are three brief points to consider: (1) I’m not talking about meeting with the fighters themselves but with people who can speak knowledgeably about their thinking, methods, and aims. (The same is true for participants on the other side of the table.) (2) There’s only one way to know who is naive and who is realistic, and that’s to TRY. There seems to me to be no excuse for assuming that peace is unobtainable and refusing to try the experiment. (3) Practically every successful peace initiative I know of was opposed by people who said just what Sherry says: “You can’t talk with those terrorists.” That’s exactly what they told George Mitchell when he landed in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, he “naively” forged ahead.


Sherry April 26, 2013 at 11:07 pm

{eyes rolling backwards in head}
Comparing Islamist Extremists to the IRA is like comparing Apples and Oranges. Northern Ireland is an isolated island where both Catholics and Protestants live in neighbourhoods separated by walls. Until recent times, they didn’t associate because they didn’t have much in common besides living on the same island. As populations go, that fact might be the most singularly motivating force other than the fact that each side recognized that they were at risk of losing an entire generation to bloodshed that is unnecessary to achieve its goals. Hate for hate’s sake takes a lot of energy. George Mitchell found common ground within religion (at least Christianity), geography, the desire of each side to end the carnage, and a willingness to find political compromise. I recognize that for Catholics and Protestants this boiled down to again each side blaming the other for the economic/political tensions that boil over into the resulting melee.
It’s not difficult to find out what the average Jihadist wants:
“Death to all infidels, take your armies and leave our countries. Its none of your business how we treat minority groups and women within OUR society! and we can come and murder you in YOURS any time we please!”
It is more difficult to find where compromise should begin. When we welcome immigrants with open arms, bend over backwards for them, TRY not to offend them although we tend to give up more of our own freedoms in that fruitless endeavour. And now we have the additional worry of home grown terrorists?! Canada and the USA are great places to live. I suggest that anyone who cannot do that here peacefully, return/go to the land that inspired their radical thoughts and STAY THERE!


Rich Rubenstein April 27, 2013 at 2:24 am

I consented to run this comment on my website because it is so self-revelatory. The critic who accuses me of naivete turns out to be an anti-immigrant bigot. There are worse things than naivete! Sherry, you are not unintelligent. Why not think twice about where your anger is leading you?


Sherry April 27, 2013 at 12:10 pm

I resent being labelled a bigot. I am not. I don’t care where someone is from when they find themselves here. Your words are harsh and self-serving. As soon as anyone suggests a return to somewhere where such radical thoughts are tolerated better, they are labelled as intolerant themselves!? You reveal the double standard that is the major cause of my and so many others’ frustration. We’re not anti-immigrant, we’re anti-live here, take advantage of our inclusiveness, and hate us where we all live and plan to kill us for not being like them. I resent being labelled a bigot. I am not. I don’t care where someone is from when they find themselves here. Your words are harsh and self-serving. As soon as anyone suggests a return to somewhere where such radical thoughts are tolerated better, they are labelled as intolerant themselves!? You reveal the double standard that is the major cause of my and so many others’ frustration. My friends are as diverse as this country, but there isn’t a radical Islamist among them. You’ve “allowed” my comment on your blog so you can point to people like me as part of the problem! I’m not the one blowing up things. I shun those who preach hate on all sides, including those who call themselves “Christian fundamentalists” I refuse to be lumped in with them either.
I doubt this post makes it past your scrutiny, unless you can find some way of using it to your promotional advantage. There are definitely worse things than nativity. Mis-labelling peaceful, inclusive individuals such as myself as anti-immigrant bigots, because we would rather have those who can’t play nicely in our multi-cultural sandbox go elsewhere and stop planning our destruction, in order to vilify us as part of the problem is certainly a prime example.

NN April 26, 2013 at 3:02 pm

There is certainly room for conversation about the U.S.’s ill-conceived military involvement in countries that happen to be Muslim. But one thing is certain: the Tsarnaevs were completely unaffected personally by what the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan, Iraq etc. Unless you want to argue that every Muslim on the face of the earth is personally affected by what happens to another Muslim anytime, anywhere (and that, I think, is quite convincingly disproved by millions of Muslims who appear to get along in the West without buying pressure cookers), you’d have to explain what was so special about THAT particular Muslim since he went to toss bombs and others didn’t. Hell, his uncle appears to do splendidly in the U.S., and he’s Muslim. Certainly, being an adult, he must have suffered from the Chechen wars way more than the boys. There is also an inconvenient truth that blowing up Boston marathon most certainly does nothing to stop anything anywhere the U.S. might be doing militarily. So if you want to argue logic, I don’t see it.

The U.S. never had presence in Chechnya. I cannot accept that the Tsarnayevs were “essentially decent” people driven by extreme circumstances. There was nothing extreme in their circumstances besides the older brother’s inability to adjust because he felt too good for menial jobs most other immigrants with no particular qualifications gladly take. This is the case of a man who couldn’t achieve in real life, and was offered an opportunity to achieve in terror, and took it.


Rich Rubenstein April 26, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Of course, I never contended that U.S. empire-building was the sole cause of the Tsarnaev brothers’ actions, although maybe I didn’t make that clear. We need to distinguish between necessary and sufficient causes. American military involvement in Muslim countries (and many non-Muslim countries!) is a necessary cause of the bombing; without it, the brothers might have done some sort of violence to someone, but not terrorism against Americans. To give a full (sufficient) explanation of their behavior would also require talking about psychological issues, etc. Nadya tries to do this in her last paragraph but succeeds only in expressing her dislike of them.


Amr Abdalla April 27, 2013 at 3:32 am

Thank you Dr. Rubenstein for the courage and depth of this analysis. It is no idealism to seek to understand the other, while not condoning their violence.

In peace. Amr


Rich Rubenstein April 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Thank you, Amr. Amr Abdalla is Dean of the U.N. University of Peace in Costa Rica and a former S-CAR student. It is good to hear from such a distinguished peace advocate!


Hussein Yusuf May 1, 2013 at 6:23 am

Dear All,

Commenting on the page of a teacher is–really a remarkable privilege. I read the comments here. Rich knows much on what we pontificate on everyday. Yes, terror has a room, even in these Unites States. And we have strong strong evidence here: the dead, body parts, the wounded..and those that we will never walk for the rest of the lives. Imagine the families that are now wiped out!! Islamists ideology have caused more terror within their own countries. And yes they can bring here, and I think there is a way to prevent this. Rich has, in so many ways, have to told me–be calm. Only a lucky student has that kind of teaching in a classroom. It does take so much from the world, when one sees the knowledge of teacher limited or ignored–so publicly. Let us stay calm. And yes, let us go after the people who did this terror! I wish there was a room to tell their story!


Rich Rubenstein May 1, 2013 at 12:43 pm

My excellent student and friend Hussein has an especially strong appreciation of the evils of terrorism, since his homeland (Somalia) is stricken by the depredations of al-Shabab, among other groups. But he understands that it is one thing to apprehend the perpetrators and quite another to fight a war of extermination against a movement with substantial (even if not majority) popular support. After 9/11, the U.S. had every right to go after al-Qaeda — but it was a fateful mistake to try to destroy the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (Before the invasion, the Provost of George Mason University and I co-authored a letter to the editor of The Washington Post warning that if we overthrew the Afghani regime, we would have to occupy that country indefinitely, but the letter was never published.) Sooner or later, you have to talk even to those whose ideas and practices you hate.


ILHAN Rifat May 3, 2013 at 8:11 pm

In these days, it is hard to distinguish who are terrorists and who are not. I think there may be lots of definitions of terrorist or terror in literature or our every day life. Somes are called themselves Jihadist, guerrilla, freedom fighters and somes are called as simply terrorist. I think this ambiguity is derived from how people perceive the world. This perception is shaped by deep emotions in human being, which some of them presented by Mr. Rubenstein. In my opinion, most important one is entitlement to commit violence, entitlement to destroy others who are not like us.

If you want to resolve the conflict between two groups, or prevent the terrorism you have to consider the human nature. Because it’s all related with human nature. Thus trying to find peaceful ways to prevent people, especially adolescents, joining terrorist organizations and committing violence is more important then finding answers to the question, who is terrorist and who is not. Because both sides are human. And terror is derived from pscyhological motivations of human psyche, not the taking place in a wrong side. Therefore, Mr Rubenstein’s suggestions are the core and more realistic points of terror management.

I wrote this letter from a country where 30.OOO Turkish citizens were killed by an ethnic terrorist organization since 1980s. War on terror with using only military sources in order to pay back to the terrorists brought more violence, more radicalization, more hatred to this country, Turkey.

Ankara University
Center for the Study and Research of Political Psychology


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Rich Rubenstein April 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm

I’m running Sherry’s latest comment and giving myself the last word in this exchange. It IS hard to be called a bigot, and I may have spoken too harshly. On the other hand, the matter is complex. In 1919, after a few foreign-born anarchists sent bombs to the homes of eight leading industrialists and politicians, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer rounded up every immigrant radical he could find and deported several thousand of them without trial or other due process. I’m sure that many of the people who applauded this act didn’t consider themselves bigoted against immigrants either. The immigration issue in this case is simply a red herring, in my view.


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