April 19, 2013
Could We Have Foreseen the Boston Attack?
Posted by Jeffrey Toobin
The bomb at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City went off at 9:02 A.M. on April 19, 1995. It was almost a full twenty-four hours later that the axle for a Ryder rental truck was found, about five hundred feet away. The vehicle-identification number on that axle led to the arrest of Timothy McVeigh, later that day. It took an enormous explosion to propel a truck axle so far; of course, that fertilizer bomb also sheared a huge gash into the Murrah building. A hundred and sixty eight people died, nineteen of them children.
The two bombs that went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday were a great deal smaller. The casualties, too, were less awful—only three dead. It’s difficult to find any good news in the events out of Boston, but the fact remains, although it is sometimes obscured by the disaster of 9/11, that it had been eighteen years since a terrorist bomb was aimed at American citizens.
It now appears that two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were responsible for the Boston bombings. Whether they had accomplices is an open question. The brothers were immigrants from the former Soviet Union, part of a Chechen family. Their motivations remain mysterious, and they appear to have provided no warnings. Could we have known what was coming? Should we have known?
I doubt it. The criminal-justice system operates retrospectively—trials examine events from the past. Their results are usually, if imperfectly, reliable. If Dzhokhar is found alive and arrested, a major legal drama will ensue. As in the Oklahoma City case, both the federal and state governments will have the right to bring charges. (One factor that may complicate the issue of state vs. federal prosecution is that federal law offers the possibility of the death penalty but Massachusetts law does not.)
Terrorism invites something different and much more difficult: the attempt to predict what will happen in the future. If there is any lesson from the tragedies, it’s that we will never be able to identify in advance the people who wreak this type of evil.