A wise friend suggested to me yesterday that the Boston bombing story is “the elephant in the room, leading to total reconsideration of many issues, whether immigration, the war on terror, gun ownership, cultural decline…”
Color me skeptical.
Politicians and activists, pundits and columnists across the political spectrum have used the murder and mayhem caused by a pair of Islamic radicals (yes, President Obama, I said “Islamic”) to grind their own policy or opinion axes.
Some (but probably not most, at least within the political class) are sincere, others simply opportunistic. But on almost every issue, even if agreeing with the speaker’s fundamental position, broad policy implications of the murderous Tsarnaev brothers are overstated.
Leading the way is immigration, already the hottest and, along with gun control, the most emotional major subject of legislation today, with factions within both political parties (but especially Republicans) positioning to ensure that their policy choices do not become self-ingested political poison.
On this issue, a few Republicans who range from skeptical about immigration generally to skeptical about current proposals to simply worried about their own political skins have used the Boston events to argue for delaying or stopping reform.
Last Friday, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), in a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, tried to tie the bombing to debate on immigration reform, saying among other things that “While we don’t yet know the immigration status of people who have terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out, it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system.”
Grassley asked other important, if rhetorical-in-that-setting, questions including “How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the U.S.? [And] how do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws, including this new bill before us?”
A few days later, Grassley aggressively denied that he was using the Boston attack as a reason to delay action on immigration reform.
But Senator (and likely presidential hopeful) Rand Paul (R-KY) is not backing off from his letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) that “We should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system.”
He continued: “The facts emerging in the Boston Marathon bombing have exposed a weakness in our current system. If we don’t use this debate as an opportunity to fix flaws in our current system, flaws made even more evident last week, then we will not be doing our jobs.… Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism?”
And Rep. John Carter (R-TX) says that “the senseless and cowardly attack in Boston is a stark reminder that we must be ever vigilant in our efforts to secure the homeland.”
To be sure, the statements by Sens. Grassley and Paul, Rep. Carter and others represent valid policy concerns. We should understand the weaknesses and flaws of our immigration system and fix them, whether it relates to national security, the economy, or future cost to taxpayers.
But these are issues which, Boston notwithstanding, should already be at the heart of the immigration reform debate. Anybody who is in a position to pass critically important legislation but wasn’t already thinking about the implications of immigration reform for major aspects of American life should resign his office.
To be fair to Chuck Grassley, his initial statements were made before much was known about the history of the Tsarnaev brothers. The same cannot be said of Rand Paul’s letter, by which time we had already learned that the murderous pair had been admitted to the United States a decade earlier, when the elder (and now dead) brother, Tamerlan, was 15 or 16 years old and the younger brother, Dzhokhar, about 9 years old.
As my wise friend -- whom nobody would mistake for a liberal -- added, “It's pretty depressing when [Senator] Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is the only one talking sense when it comes to wanting to blame the immigration system for having allowed those two young men into the country nearly a decade ago when they were still boys.”
WHATEVER GOVERNMENTAL FAILURES existed in the Tsarnaev case, they were not primarily in the immigration system but rather, in more recent years, in the intersection of intelligence and law enforcement, and perhaps in the welfare system. It is fair to argue that the Boston bombing did, in a most horrible way, demonstrate weaknesses in our national security apparatus. But again, these are issues that should not impact the timing of debate on immigration reform, regardless of one’s position on the issue itself. Either enough thought has been put into it for a vote, or it hasn’t. Boston changes none of that.
The other side of the immigration debate is also inappropriately claiming Boston as a reason to rush, or a reason to believe that the Gang of Eight proposal (or anything vaguely like it) will suddenly make us much safer.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano suggested on Tuesday that reform, by requiring all passports to be readable by electronic scanners, would have prevented the human error that allowed the elder Tsarnaev brother to travel to Russia without American law enforcement being alerted.
Napolitano also suggested that legalizing millions of currently illegal residents of the United States would help the police: “once these people know that every time they interact with law enforcement they won't be subject to removal, it will help with the reporting of crimes, the willingness to be a witness and so forth.”
In an appearance on CNN, Senator Lindsey Graham (RINO-SC) similarly suggested that “I think now is the time to bring all the 11 million out of the shadows and find out who they are. Most of them are here to work, but we may find some terrorists in our midst who have been hiding in the shadows.” Does Sen. Graham believe that a member of Hezbollah posing as a migrant farm worker will decide that registering with Big Sis and ICE is a clever idea because he might have a chance to apply for a green card several years after he expects to have killed himself along with dozens of Americans?
As matters of policy debate, issues of immigrants working with police, or other useful consequences of current illegal aliens registering with the government are valid. But tying them to Boston is not.
Regarding the war on terror, the primary discernible lesson is that the Internet allows self-radicalization (whether as a starting point, or as a continuation of a mindset initially inspired elsewhere) as well as providing instructions on how to make the tools of destruction. This is not a major paradigm shift in the battle against terrorism, but rather a reminder of something that was already known -- even if not previously well-understood by the public.
Despite the remarkable data-gathering ability of the NSA and related intelligence organizations, this means that there may be more “lone wolf” attacks inspired by, but not predominantly coordinated by, foreign terrorist organizations. It is an unenviable position for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to be in, as the lack of external connections makes such plots much more difficult to detect and interdict. It also suggests that Americans (including citizens and foreign residents) must be aware and diligent in our own spheres, heeding the message of signs in airports and subways: If you see something, say something. Again, Boston was a reminder but not a revelation.
As for gun ownership, the bombings simply allowed each side to restate its existing view. Those against gun rights predictably, but not quite logically, argued that since the Tsarnaev brothers had a gun but did not have gun permits in Massachusetts, the Senate was wrong not to expand background checks. Those who are for gun rights predictably (and sensibly) argued that the fear that residents of Watertown must have felt during the manhunt for the younger brother surely caused many to wish they did not live in a state with some of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws. Simply put, there was nothing about the Boston events which changes the gun debate one iota.
And then there’s cultural decline. Judging from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Twitter page, he was -- outside of his willingness to kill for some combination of his religion and his brother -- what seems to pass in 2013 for an ordinary urban teenager. Which is to say that his biggest troubles were finding the TV remote control and trying to figure out how to sound clever to online “friends.”
[There were, in retrospect, some possible clues as to Tsarnaev’s true potential for violence sprinkled in among hundreds of mind-numbingly banal “tweets.” An example from February 1 of this year: “Do I look like that much of a softy I got these frail ass kids tryin to come at my neck, little do these dogs know they're barking at a lion.” And then there’s this: “when we consider prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) as our role model that's when we achieve true success & a path to Jannah.” (Jannah is the Muslim conception of paradise in which males -- though emphasis among Islamic radicals is on martyrs -- will receive 72 virgins.)]
But the idea that the Boston bombings are a major wakeup call for cultural decline ignores the depressingly common claxons of the coarsening of American society (which may itself be overstated, as most generations probably have the same complaint: “Kids these days…” Rap music denigrates women and policemen while glorifying violent crime. Magazines at every supermarket checkout stand wonder breathlessly whether one of the Kardashian sisters got paid to get fat. Schools emphasize self-esteem and political correctness over excellence and playing cops-and-robbers. In other words, for at least a generation, little has changed except for the names of the famous-for-being-famous. If last week’s events woke you up to cultural decline, you were in a deep slumber indeed.
The malevolence of the Tsarnaev brothers and the harm they inflicted in Boston should never be forgotten or minimized. But most other aspects of those terrible days -- and particularly their implications for public policy -- are in almost every case, overstated.
THERE IS ONE AREA, however, where the issues raised are not grossly overstated: The one truly new and interesting debate to come out of the terrorist attack at the Boston marathon surrounds the imposition of what, especially in Watertown, must be called martial law. Eyewitness accounts and photographs show the police forcing citizens out of homes, hands raised, at gunpoint.
One wonders why President Obama visited Boston less than 24 hours prior if the situation was so dangerous that hundreds or thousands of people were required to live as if in a police state.
Prior to Watertown, the city of Boston was under a hypothetically voluntary -- but how many Bostonians knew that part of the story -- “shelter in place” order: a lockdown of one of the nation’s biggest cities.
While cries of tyranny and Fourth Amendment violations may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that most who were impacted by the behavior of the state government and police did not object to cooperating -- especially since news reports suggested that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had explosives on his body when he was killed -- it is nevertheless extremely troubling that a manhunt for a single individual could devolve into a scene from Die Hard XXIV so rapidly and that a free citizenry would be so compliant when told either to stay in their homes or to evacuate them.
This is not just about “I’m not afraid” chest-thumping or the overused maxim “if we act this way, then the terrorists have won.” Lockdowns and martial law have real consequences ranging from economic impact to changing the perceived, and perhaps the real, relationship between citizens and government.
While I disagree with those who say that the Boston events represent the coming imposition of martial law across the country anytime there is an even vaguely similar situation, the images of empty Boston streets and SWAT teams in battle gear in Watertown pose serious questions. Among them: Would a better-armed citizenry have been much less afraid, and would knowledge of a better-armed citizenry have deterred the Islamists from any of their heinous, murderous actions?