Q & A about the Boston Marathon bombings

UPDATE 4/20/13 3:30 a.m.: Images of two suspects, now known to be young adult brothers, children of Chechen refugees, who apparently had been residing and studying in the U.S. for a period of years and had become radicalized jihadists during that time, were publicized on Thursday. The publication of those images (surveillance-camera footage and still photos taken at the Boston Marathon, the site of Monday’s bombings) apparently disrupted the suspects’ plans to commit further acts of terrorism using a stockpile of explosives, IED’s, and guns in their possession (which is probably why they hadn’t yet claimed responsibility for the Marathon bombings — they weren’t finished). They then apparently started making rash decisions, including perpetrating a carjacking robbery and murdering a police officer (when perpetrators’ plans are disrupted, and they’re forced to start making decisions in real time, the upside is that they usually make some stupid ones that ultimately lead to their captures or deaths, but the downside is that their behavior in the meantime can become increasingly desperate and unpredictable). When cops spotted the stolen car, a chase ensued, during which the suspects threw explosives at the cops, injuring several, one seriously. The chase ended in a firefight in a suburban Boston residential neighborhood. One suspect died in that firefight, having sustained multiple gunshot wounds but having also apparently detonated some kind of suicide belt or vest. The other suspect apparently was also wounded in that firefight but still managed to flee that scene on foot. After a virtual lock-down of Boston and a massive manhunt, that suspect was located — again with vigilant civilian aid — hiding in a boat in a residential backyard on Friday. After another firefight, that suspect was taken into custody and transported to a hospital in “serious” condition (I theorize that he may have run out of ammunition in that last firefight, or he would’ve committed suicide). He’ll now be federally charged with multiple capital murders and face the death penalty upon conviction. Despite this outcome, I still worry that we’ve only seen the tip of a larger iceberg this week — that there are more of these radicalized jihadist terrorist individuals and small groups operating secretly and relatively autonomously in the U.S. These two Boston Marathon bombers may even have had co-conspirators who are still out there. In the weeks ahead, we’ll really need to reassess as a nation whether our governmental resources are focused enough on maintaining our national security or whether they’ve been too widely dispersed among too many competing priorities, many of which are non-existentially-essential to our nation (apparently, the FBI was tipped off in 2010 that one of these Marathon bombing suspects might’ve been a jihadist but concluded otherwise and stopped monitoring him; the suspects’ mother reportedly has committed crimes here but hasn’t been deported, etc. — not that our law enforcement agencies and personnel haven’t done great work, but I think we need to be allocating more resources to them, which, in this economy, means diverting resources from less-essential functions), which of our nation’s immigration policies (e.g. the refugee visas that these terrorists and their parents apparently were granted, the student visas that other known terrorists have been granted, our relatively porous borders and ports, etc.) are costing us more than they’re benefiting us in terms of our security (and it’s our security that I care about and that I think should be the number-one priority of government both in budgeting its resources and in regulating immigration — I wouldn’t be helping out families who’ve had hard times in other places like Chechnya if that means potentially putting American families at risk)… . For the moment, though, excellent work by law enforcement, and by the public, in apprehending these two mass murderers! Thoughts and prayers of course remain with the victims (and their families) whose lives and limbs nevertheless remain lost. 

Here are some of the most common questions that I’ve received about the Boston Marathon bombings along with the best answers that I can briefly give with the information available to me at this time:

Is/are the perpetrator(s) foreign or domestic?

Too early to tell. The bombs, including lots of shrapnel designed to inflict maximum tissue damage within a wide radius, resemble the bombs typically used by Hamas in Israel, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, however, “recipes” for such bombs have been widely circulated. This is pure speculation, but I’m inclined to suspect an individual – perhaps an American, perhaps an immigrant or foreign student who had been in this country for a while – with jihadist motivations and some technical expertise/experience, but not necessarily with direct instruction or support from a broader jihadist organization. We’ve seen people like this at Ft. Hood, Times Square, and elsewhere apparently trying to make jihadist “heroes” of themselves by perpetrating solo terrorist attacks on Americans. If that’s the case here, I wonder whether some kind of a note, video, etc. will surface, perhaps mailed just prior to the bombings, identifying the perpetrator (so he’d still get his “hero” status in the event that he – and I’m using “he” because it’d almost certainly be a male – was killed in the explosions or by law enforcement at the scene).

Will there be copycat attacks in the days ahead?

There may already have been at least one subsequent incident inspired by the Boston Marathon bombings – a letter containing the toxin Ricin mailed to a U.S. senator (which was intercepted before delivery). There will be certainly be copycat threats if not actual copycats, and EVERY one of them should be treated as 100% serious. The type of person who’d think that it’d make him look “tough” to threaten a copycat of the Boston Marathon bombings is the type of cowardly loser who just might act on that threat (most probably wouldn’t, but we don’t need to risk it – the threat alone opens the door for us to take control of that individual).

Is it correct to say that a person who would do something like this must be “sick”?

No. Mental illness is only explanatory of violence to the extent that it prevents a person from making decisions about behavior. This bomber(s) may or may not be mentally stable, but he/they appear(s) to have made many decisions about behavior culminating in the bombings.

If it’s jihadist terrorism, what role does religion play?

Generally, not much. I don’t believe that jihadists, in general, are that much more religiously-motivated to do the things that they do in life than Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. are. I do believe, however, that if a restless, disaffected, direction-less, “disenfranchised,” angry young man were looking for a reason to lash out at an institution or a nation, and if someone with ostensible moral authority told the young man that it’s not only morally permissible but morally imperative to do so, then there’s a dangerous chance that the young man might in fact lash out. This would not, however, absolve the young man of the obligation to use his intellect to discern right from wrong independently of what anyone, religious or secular, told him, so he’d of course remain fully responsible for his actions.

What explains it then?

Keep in mind, if this “made sense” to you, you’d likely have some serious problems. This transcends psychology, but to use psychological terms, it illustrates the malignant, sociopathic narcissism at the core of the perpetrators of terrorism, the sense of entitlement to take their frustration, rage, jealousy, etc. out on innocent others. Everyone has to decide what to call the conscious decision to act on those feelings in a destructive way. I call it evil, and it absolutely does exist.

Why would the perpetrator(s) target innocent, unarmed people, including women and children?

Probably two reasons: 1) The bomber(s) probably wanted to inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering and to spread it around as widely as possible, and 2) Cowardice – these perpetrators typically are cowards; they don’t want to fight equals face-to-face; they want to hide in shadows and ambush people; they want to inflict pain but don’t want to feel pain; they typically run away or commit suicide either before or when equals arrive on the scene.

Is this sort of thing the “new reality” in America?

Honestly, that’s possible. Since 9/11/2001, our nation’s counter-terrorism efforts have been incredibly successful, but infinite, perfect preventive success is an unrealistic expectation. I’ve long said that we would eventually face the kinds of “street-level” terrorism that our friends in Israel have faced for decades. The more successful we’ve become at detecting and preventing large-scale or “wholesale” terrorist operations, the more we’ve limited terrorists to smaller-scale or “retail” operations like suicide bombs, car bombs, backpack bombs, trashcan bombs, etc. That’s good in terms of limiting total casualties per incident, but psychologically, the chance of trashcans exploding on their city streets can actually be more chronically anxiety-provoking for many people than the chance of the buildings in which they work falling down.

How might we begin working to prevent this sort of thing from becoming the “new reality” in America?

Our first thoughts and efforts should be devoted to the victims. Next, we need to figure out exactly what happened here and bring the perpetrator(s) to justice. Then, we need to ask ourselves what are the most important functions of our government? Is our government protecting us as well as it could be if it weren’t simultaneously trying to do a million non-existentially-essential (to the nation) things, from co-opting our healthcare all the way down to regulating the size of our soft-drink cups? Which government services and safety nets would we be willing to do without in order for our government to focus more of its resources on our security infrastructure? Do we want people, some of whom wish us harm (of course we don’t know yet who’s responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings – it could be an American – but I’ve been saying for years that we need to learn from the Israelis how to better balance our welcoming aspirations against deadly new realities on our streets) to continue to literally be able to walk across our borders into this country anytime? (And we should NOT even CONSIDER passing immigration reform legislation until we complete the investigation into these bombings, which may or may not reveal security risks that must be addressed as part of any laws governing who enters our country, who stays in our country if they’re already here, etc.) But again, victims first, justice second, policy third.

How should parents talk about this with children?

Even kids who weren’t directly affected can still be affected by coverage of the event in that it can shake their sense of the security, safety, and predictability of their world. Here are some general thoughts and suggestions for parents: 1) Listen to your children – they may not have paid as much attention to the coverage or be as anxious about it as you think (and you can minimize their further exposure to it by keeping it off of televisions, radios, and computers in the children’s presence). 2) Validate feelings and fears that they do have, e.g. by acknowledging, at age-appropriate levels of course, that there are some bad people in the world who do some bad things sometimes, and that it’s sad and scary for all of us. 3) Reassure them that they’re very safe and secure with you, that the majority of people in their world are good, and that we can work together to make the number of bad things that happen even smaller, e.g. if we take reasonable precautions, stick together, stay alert, report suspicious behavior, support and assist our first responders, etc. 4) Refocus them off of the gruesome details of the event and toward the good in people that was exhibited in the context of it, e.g. pointing out the heroism of the first responders, of the survivors who looked out for one another as that terrible event happened. 5) Act – e.g., maybe let them go with you to the blood bank if you donate blood, do something to show appreciation to your local first responders, donate to the victims’ relief fund, make a card to send to a hospitalized survivor, etc. – to help demonstrate that the “good guys” are back in control and thereby hopefully help to reactivate some of that resilient optimism that many kids characteristically exhibit. And if those measures don’t seem to be adequate for your child(ren) – or for yourself, for that matter – then seek consultation with a mental health professional near you; that’s what they’re there for.

Are public memorial services helpful?

Generally, yes. Memorial services will be helpful in mustering social support and reassuring that the “good guys” are back in control. (Obviously any event to which you take your kids or which you allow your kids to watch needs to be age-appropriate – an infant probably isn’t going to benefit much from attending a memorial service, for example.)

Any pet peeves about the coverage of cases like this?

Yes, I hate it when people say that the perpetrator(s) have to be “sick” (see the question and my answer on that specific topic above). In addition, while I realize that they don’t mean to, when people go in front of TV cameras and say that “God” saved their loved ones from harm, they’re implying that God didn’t mind that other people’s loved ones got killed/maimed. I don’t believe that God picks and chooses who gets killed, who gets maimed, and who gets spared like that, and I always feel bad for the victims’ loved ones when the media shows survivors’ loved ones saying it.

Is there any good to point out in this case?

Yes, the heroism of the first responders rushing to the scene without hesitation exemplified what “Patriots’ Day” (which was also Monday) in Boston is all about. There are also multiple stories of inspiring compassion and medical skill associated with the aftermath of these bombings.

Do first responders get traumatized like victims do?

My late father was a first responder (cop) at the beginning of his career, and my brother is a first responder (firefighter/EMT) now. First responders often see terrible suffering and are forced by the exigency of the circumstances to prioritize the needs of victims over their own needs, including their psychological needs. Not surprisingly, once removed from the emergent situation, they begin to process what they’ve seen, experienced, and felt, and that often involves experiencing unpleasant memories and emotions, which can preoccupy their thoughts, interrupt their sleep, and cause mood disturbances like depression and anxiety. It also often involves self-doubt, questioning whether they did enough of the right things, and while the guilt that they feel is quite often unjustified, it can be difficult for someone in a highly emotional state to reflect and think clearly and logically enough about all of the relevant factors to reach that conclusion quickly and comfortably. What begins as an “acute stress reaction,” if allowed to go unresolved long enough, can turn into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). So, like disaster victims, it’s important that disaster responders have someone with whom they CAN, if they wish (there’s no one-size-fits-all here), debrief and discuss – and in the process, organize, think through, and gain realistic perspective on – their memories, feelings, and thoughts about what they saw, did, and didn’t do on the scene of a disaster. Like some victims, some responders don’t feel that need, and some can do those things just fine with colleagues, friends, and family, but some don’t have that kind of social support system, and some who do have it nonetheless need professional assistance resolving persistent traumatic memories, feelings, and thoughts. It’s tough to know exactly which responders will fall into which category until some time has passed, so it makes sense, as the U.S. military has found, to have a professionally-facilitated “triage” protocol in place for anyone returning from a traumatic deployment, which basically involves mental-health professionals being available to see how functional people seem and to provide some reassuring/validating psycho-education about the normalcy of some negative post-traumatic emotions, the benefits of social support, etc., and what to do if one’s experience seems abnormally debilitating, abnormally protracted, etc. For some, that might be the only opportunity for professional involvement that they have or need, while others might need/want ongoing professional involvement for a while, and if anyone who initially thought he/she was in the first category comes to realize he/she is actually in the second category, they at least have someone they can contact either for direct assistance or a referral. It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone who goes through something traumatic needs to go straight to therapy. For many people, there’s actually a downside to continually rehashing their traumas.

Why would God allow something so horrific to happen?

This question is often posed to psychologists as they help people through grief, but it’s a question that psychology is ill-equipped to handle. If you’ve watched or listened to me in the media or read my blog, you know that I don’t publicly venture into a spiritual zone very often, but in this instance, I’ll give it a try. In case it’s helpful to anyone, here’s how I, personally, make sense of tragedy: It makes sense to me that God might, for example, help the driver of a bus full of children to think clearly enough during a bridge collapse to bring the bus to rest safely, but terrible things still sometimes happen in life, and when they do, I don’t think it means that God didn’t care about the people affected. What makes more sense to me is that there’s so much more to our existence after this life that when and how this life ends is not as important in the grand scheme of things as it seems to us who know only this life. I’m not minimizing the profound value and significance of our lives on this Earth. I’m simply asking, what if the magnitude of the loss of a loved one is as profound as it is to us because this life is all we know? What if the grief that we feel seems like it will last forever because we judge time relative to the length of this life rather than to eternity? What if, to our lost loved ones, our arrival where they are will seem almost simultaneous with theirs, as if we come through the door right behind them even though it’s been decades in Earth time? I can’t promise you that’s how it works, but that’s what I believe, and it helps me. Will it help anyone else in the wake of such profound loss? I hope so.

(I’ll try to update these questions and answers here, and/or on TV, as developments warrant/allow.)

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