Yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombings have been dubbed an “act of terrorism” by President Barack Obama, confirming what most people already suspected. What remains unknown is the perpetrator(s) of the bombings and their motive for committing such a cowardly, terrifying act. Whilst this mystery remains, many Americans will fell again feel insecure in the public places they frequent as a matter of habit.
We are often told how terrorist threats are a daily reality in the US, a situation embellished by dramas like Homeland and Person of Interest. Whilst this may be true, the excellent performance of the security services not only ensures that most of these threats do not result in action but that their prevention does not lead to public scaremongering with inadvisable press releases or demands for public accolade.
It is this selflessness that has helped reassure Americans in the wake of 9/11 that they can go to work in safety. The Boston bombings will, unfortunately, dent such reassurance.
Indeed, it is ironic when one looks at the history of terrorist attacks on US soil how major incidents are punctuated by years of relative calm, as if the terrorists are waiting for the citizenry to return to a state of secure complacency before striking again.
As early as October 1910, James and John McNamara, a pair of angered trade unionists, bombed the Los Angeles Times office, killing twenty-one. It would be another decade before an event of similar public intimidation occurred when, on the 16th September 1920, anarchists were suspected of committing the Wall Street Bombing that claimed thirty-eight lives.
The significance of terrorist attacks are their lack of a singular identified target. Whilst the location of a terrorist attack may be rife with symbolism (such as anarchists attacking the establishment on Wall Street) the killing of individuals is both planned and indiscriminate. It is little wonder then that such attacks create public paranoia, usually followed by a determined overhaul of security procedure. In the case of the Wall Street Bombing, it is largely credited with inspiring the creation of the Red Scare and subsequently J Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Almost every decade of the 20th century in America has seen a terrorist attack after which a period of uneasy calm has reigned and security been tightened. An exception is the case of George Metesky, the ‘Mad Bomber’, who terrorised New York City with his random placing of bombs in public places during the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than a terrorist, Metesky was a disturbed lunatic, yet the indiscriminate nature of his attacks had a similar affect to more organised extremism.
15th September 1963 saw the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four African-American girls. Perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), it heightened public fears of a national race war at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Reprisals were feared by whites and black populations nationwide were further cowed by a rampant, unrepentant racism that could strike at any time.
One of the most symbolic terrorist acts of the 1970s was the Hanafi Siege, which took place in March 1977 when twelve African-American Muslims took nearly 150 people hostage at district buildings in central Washington. One person died but the brazen nature of the attack again increased public fears that security in the big cities was not sufficient to deal with terrorists.
The 1990s offer another exception as serious attack followed serious attack. After the 1993 World Trade Centre Bombing security was heightened at federal buildings in some of the country’s biggest cities. However, that did not stop the outrageous Oklahoma City Bombing of 19th April 1995, in which 168 people died at the hands of Tim McVeigh. Whilst the World Trade Centre attack had alerted the public to an encroaching Islamic extremist threat, McVeigh’s assault showed that terrorism on US soil was not the preserve of hate-preaching foreigners. The Centennial Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta games capped a terrifying few years.
As the fear brought by the terror of the mid-1990s seemed to be dissipating 9/11 happened and the vicious cycle repeated itself. Although people may not have significantly changed their daily lives, it undoubtedly made many very suspicious and mistrusting of the people and places around them. A culture of fear, it could be argued, developed which has contributed to the radicalisation of politics in America over the past few years, particularly within some factions of the Republican Party.
Along with the ever-present threat that a madman with an assault rifle could open fire at almost any public place at any time, Americans are daily confronted with the reality that their cities have become a beacon for terrorist activity over the course of the 20th century. Their sheer size, cultural and political diversity and international prominence make them ideal targets. Events such as the Boston Marathon Bombings necessarily remind Americans of this sad reality.
Terrorism is by no means restricted to American soil yet the country’s status as the ambassador for global freedom makes it an enticing target for those who want to enslave the human race with their extremist ideals.