A US police SWAT team searches houses after the Boston Marathon bombings in April.
Credit: Timothy A. Clary

NEW YORK — We remember the weapons they used. Whether fertilizer or box cutters or pressure cookers, certain objects have become icons for the worst terrorist acts lodged in this country’s history. But one kind of weapon stands out for its spectacle, violence and implications.

The bomb, says Professor Pete Kraska, represents “who [the attackers] were, the type of killing that took place.” It taps into our collective fear of random violence that we hear about in other countries but do not expect in the United States.

“We have to acknowledge that it is a different medium of killing that seems akin to what occurs in other countries than what occurs here,” says Kraska, who researches criminal justice theory and militarization at Eastern Kentucky University.

“Bombing,” he adds, “is qualitatively different in its imagery than what gun violence is.”

The fear of bombs, more than guns or government surveillance, digs deep not only into our fear of international terrorism and indiscriminate killings. It helps sustain the narrative upon which we depend to perpetuate the endless war on terrorism by reinforcing the rhetoric of Good vs. Evil that has formed the backbone of post-9/11 American foreign policy.

“We have this image that the way we fight — meaning using the methods that we’re comfortable with or methods that we can afford because we are rich — we come to think that’s “fighting fair” or that’s war conducted the way war should be conducted,” said Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, author of “The New American Militarism."

“And by extension, we think that people who use other means — IED’s are a good example of that — are somehow cheating or not playing fair, when, in fact, they are doing exactly what we are doing and that is they are trying to employ the technologies that are available to them to enhance their capabilities,” Bacevich added. “It’s just that they use different technologies.”

This technology of the other tends to be crude or improvised, and that perceived lack of sophistication highlights another disparity: the advanced capabilities of American military technology.

Kraska at Eastern Kentucky believes the American public has developed a fetish for military-grade weaponry, from video games to assault weapons to police SWAT teams. Alongside this rise of militarization at all levels of American society, we also see an increasingly militarized response from the state to acts of terrorism.

Whereas in our most simplistic reasoning, we believe a person with a gun can be neutralized by another person with a gun, no one makes that argument with bombers. What a bomb provokes above all is the need for a swift, efficient government reaction to stamp out the terrorists and restore control, no matter the cost.

As the images of Boston’s manhunt filtered out, we saw troops of SWAT units clad in black moving in formation and jungle-camouflaged FBI agents searching door-to-door. Armored personnel carriers rumbled by in the background. Meanwhile, the entire population of Boston acquiesced to martial law.

“In terms of the degree of the public display of militarization, it’s stunning,” Kraska said. “Clearly it’s become part of who we are and what we do in the United States of America, when it comes to civilian policing now.” To Kraska, our general level of fear has enabled the state to rapidly expand its security apparatus, a worrying trend he does not see slowing in the near future.

While news media fixates on the National Security Agency’s surveillance of phone and tech databases, the indifferent responses to that story fit into a pattern of public acceptance of government overreach under the banner of national security.

Although many believe the spying has gone on for the last six or seven years, the Patriot Act actually extends an evolution that spans decades. Bacevich, the author and a former colonel in the military, traces back our cultural and political obsession with military force well past 9/11 to possibly the “War on Drugs” of the 1980s. And those gradual changes continue in other forms.

Kraska believes the conversation about domestic use of drones is a clear step in that process of normalization and he said he would not be surprised if police departments were operating drones in the next five or ten years.

On a recent interview on NPR, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, highlighted the global impact of this trend of domestic militarization when discussing his new book, “Foreign Policy Begins At Home.”

“Terrorism is a real and continuing threat and it's not going to go away. What Boston shows is how small numbers of individuals, inspired, say, by the Internet, with access to their local hardware store, can do real damage. So what this tells me is there's not a foreign policy solution to this,” he said.

Haass believes the solution is to concentrate on policies that can improve the economy and domestic security, thereby decreasing the appeal of extremism. In turn, those benefits would project into foreign policy objectives by demonstrating the country’s leadership and strength.

How a country is viewed abroad and how its foreign policies reflect its values depend on those that are enacted at home, and currently, both US foreign and domestic policies on security encourage more, not less, violence.

“I think it’s quite clear that US military meddling in some cases, not all, but in some cases produces what some people have called ‘blowback’,” Bacevich said. “And the blowback can take the form of terrorist attacks directed against US interests abroad or directed against American soil."

Bacevich believes that militaristic images, such as the president in military uniform giving a speech on an aircraft carrier, reflect the extent to which our civilian culture has become militarized, giving the sense of a homeland transformed into a battleground. America’s anti-terrorism policies here and abroad have truly globalized the notion of a war on terrorism and how we experience and respond to it.

In this ongoing war against terrorism, where the battles take place matter as much as how they are fought, and increasingly, those factors are converging. From the way we view terrorism to its imagery in mainstream media to the state’s response to terrorist attacks, the narratives of global terrorism are now signaled by explosions heard around the world.

Jefferson Mok is a student in the Graduate School of Journalism and the School if International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

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