On Sunday, accompanied by several friends, I watched the end of the Brighton Marathon. We stood, just before the 42km (roughly 26 mile) marker, cheering on runners who have put in months of hard training to get to that highly emotional stage of the race. At this stage of a marathon, a mixture of haunted souls and ecstatic faces pass by, as the physical demands of running 26 miles begin to be dwarfed by the realization that the satisfaction of completion is imminent. Some of the runners we went to support achieved qualifying times for the Boston Marathon in 2014. Running Boston represents a peak achievement for many marathon runners. To enter, you need to record a qualifying time in a recognised race. For instance, for a man under the age of 35, it is necessary to run a sub 3:05 marathon. For a 59-year-old man, a 3:55 marathon is needed. Given the average time for running a marathon is around four and a half hours, just getting to Boston is quite an achievement.
Yesterday evening, I went for my usual Monday night run, in preparation for the London Marathon next weekend. On getting home, we were hit by the unfolding news from Massachusetts. Oddly, perhaps, like many Brits and Australians who have seen the film, my mind went to ‘Four Lions’. The plot of the movie reaches its crescendo when four British ‘home-grown’ terrorists attempt to blow themselves up, in full fancy dress, at the London Marathon. Unfortunately, unlike their shambolic movie counterparts, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings successfully detonated two (of four) portable devices, close to the finish line of the race. The televisual impact of the explosions was dramatic. Cameras usually focused on capturing the moment that runners cross the line swung round to zoom in on the smoke, debris and human carnage that the bombs created. A row of national flags, previously limp on a calm spring day, billowed in the force of the blast.
The images, both still and moving, that rapidly filled airwaves and social media sites, were difficult to stomach. The current death toll stands at three, with the number of injured estimated at over one hundred. The nature of the injuries is particularly horrific, with numerous “traumatic amputations”, as supporters standing near the site of detonation have all too frequently had their legs blown off. Professor Marie Breen-Smyth, Academic Director of the Centre for International Intervention at the University of Surrey, has previously worked on recording and highlighting the cases of people ‘damaged’ by terrorism in Northern Ireland. We would do well to heed some of the lessons of her research, and not exclude the injured from the statistics and stories of such events. The number of people who have had limbs ripped from bodies is already in double figures.
Alongside images, Sky News noted that “everyone was consuming media as fast as possible” in order to attempt to make sense of what was taking place and being witnessed. The flow of information was chaotic, confused and, at times, contradictory. It was also, very often, just plain wrong: factually incorrect and ethically troubling. The New York Post quickly ran stories of inflated death tolls and reports of “Saudi” suspects. It did not take long for “Saudi” and “Muslims” to trend on Twitter, despite the absurdity and implications of speculative linkages, in lieu of any corroborating evidence. News channels struggled to place a frame over the events, resorting to endless and dizzying repetition of looped footage. As with other events such as this, the acts slowly became their image, with the need for understanding deferred in favour of the picture of what was taking place, which seemed to ‘speak for itself’.
CNN, amongst others, broke from the pack early to declare that an editorial decision had been made and the events would now be designated ‘terrorist’. Such a label comes with considerable political implications; it helps to make certain policy responses possible, rendering others off limits, or simply inappropriate. The decision was in contrast to Obama’s more ‘measured language’. The President of the United States appeared to go out of his way to avoid using inflationary language, or that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Whereas Bush promised to “bring to justice”, Obama’s final words promised to hold perpetrators “accountable”.* This more British and Blairite term pushes policy towards a criminal and legislative response, rather than the implications of an emergency-premised, state of exception.
The tension between ‘policing as normal’ and a ‘terrorism inquiry’ was evident in the Boston Police Department’s official declaration that this was a criminal and potential terrorist investigation. That such a dichotomy exists is troubling. As I have argued previously, counter-terrorism would be more efficient if terrorism was not exceptionalised. Policing and legislative frameworks are usually robust enough to deal with political violence, such as terrorism, in the same way as other forms of violence. And by using existing channels, the potential for eroded civil liberties and inflated terrorist agendas is diminished. Emergencies and crises lead to impaired legislation and weaker decision-making. This is why political leaders must not say “Al Qaeda or whatever, but we don’t know that yet”, as one just has, until such information is confirmed, moving it beyond hearsay and conjecture. While a criminal investigation may move swiftly, political responses must be slow, thoughtful and careful, if indeed a ‘response’ is even necessary.
Several tropes familiar to the ‘War on Terror’ did emerge in the event’s aftermath. Unity and bipartisanship were foremost in Obama’s words. Heroism, too, featured in early reports, both online and on television. Images of volunteers and police running towards the explosions were accompanied by sketchy stories about participants crossing the finish line and continuing to run to places where they offered to donate blood. For me, and for other runners I’ve heard from, a small glimpse of humanity that we noted was the tendency for runners to cross the finish line, shaken and scared, but still of sufficiently sound mind to stop their watches.
To wrap up these very preliminary thoughts, I will close with two things. First, while events in Boston are abhorrent – and I condemn them as strongly as such condemnation is possible – they are not exceptional, either in their nature or level of violence. What is unusual about these events is that they took place in the United States, and that their ‘choreographing’ has helped to maximise their televisual impact. A wave of bombings, also on Monday, killed 27 people. They were Iraqi. And in Afghanistan, on Monday night, 30 people were killed and 90 wounded at a wedding, following an “errant” US airstrike. Such statistics reaffirm the importance of vigilance against all forms of political violence, whether labeled terrorism or counter-terrorism.
Second, my vantage point for the Boston Marathon bombings was one of a British runner. A small tile on my office wall reads: “Keep calm and go for a run”. That is exactly what Brits will do this weekend, at the Virgin London Marathon 2013. “Carry on” has been a prominent British response to the events in Massachusetts. And that is not a bad start. So while Boston’s 26th mile was dedicated, tragically, to the victims of the Newtown shootings, many running the London Marathon on Sunday will do so with Boston in mind.
Dr Jack Holland
Lecturer in International Relations
* As Andrew Neal and others have pointed out, Obama does talk of “justice” earlier in his short address.
I have deliberately resisted adding images or links to the above.
For those so inclined, I blogged yesterday on teaching gender and security. It’s an important topic that shouldn’t get lost in the post-Boston maelstrom.
And, for those driving home at this sort of time, I’m due to speak on a few local BBC radio stations between 4pm and 6pm this afternoon. I’ll share details on Twitter when I get them. Update – I’m on BBC 5 Live at 12:05pm.