Erin Hurley has nearly ten years of experience working in US politics in New York and Washington DC, and served as a legislative affairs officer within the US Department of Defense.
In a post on the Boston bombings in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt expressed strong disappointment in 'our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them sensibly' and wondered if 'our political and social system is even capable of a rational response to events of this kind'.
Walt's disgust with the 'hydra-headed and commercially voracious' cable news media is understandable, but his broader conclusions seem out of touch with the response the world witnessed, and overly cynical about the state of US political discourse and public sentiment about terrorism.
Sam Roggeveen, in a recent comment on this blog, rightly celebrated the appropriateness of President Obama's initial response to the Boston bombings relative to the objective threat. The actions taken by the Administration in recent days continue to reflect prudence and proportionality, and importantly the discourse has been (largely) rational. The FBI and other law enforcement/intelligence agencies will undoubtedly undergo internal reviews and congressional hearings to determine whether opportunities to identify this threat were overlooked, but America's political leadership generally expressed confidence in these agencies and seemed to accept that there are limits to the government's capacity to prevent acts of terror.
Mike Rogers, the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged on Meet the Press last Sunday that the alienation and radicalisation of young men is not a new phenomenon, and that the story emerging was not atypical.
This acceptance of a practical law enforcement response to an act of terror is a long way from the 2004 presidential election, when President Bush's campaign ridiculed the Democratic nominee for advocating a role for law enforcement in the war on terror. (In 2004 a majority of the American public opposed the war in Iraq but the President maintained a high level of credibility related to his handling of terrorism and won re-election.)
Last week Senators Graham and McCain represented the hawkish wing of the Republican Party calling for the surviving suspect to be treated as an enemy combatant, but their position gained little traction and in a practical sense cannot go far given existing legislation.
The Obama Administration indicated early on that the suspect would be tried in the civilian court system where hundreds of terrorist suspects have been successfully prosecuted since 9/11. The Administration demonstrated a rhetorical surefootedness on this issue that was not evident in earlier attempts to deal with similar issues such as the geographic location for the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammad or the Christmas day bomber.
There are also signs that the American public has learned during the post-9/11 era and adapted its threat perceptions in a reasonable fashion. According to Gallup, just after 9/11, 46% of Americans named terrorism as the most important US problem. Between 2002 and 2005 that percentage hovered between 10 and 20% and by 2007 went into single digits and remained there.
It's possible that this expression of confidence rested on a weak foundation – the fact that there had not been a successful attack on the US homeland since 9/11 – so the Boston bombings represent a first, albeit imperfect, test of public confidence and resilience. A Washington Post poll conducted on the Wednesday and Thursday following the Boston bombings found a 'muted reaction' among Americans as compared to 9/11. Only 6% of Americans 'changed their daily activities' because of the attacks (following 9/11 that number was 53%) and only 38% of those surveyed felt it was necessary to watch the obsessive-compulsive media coverage of the event 'very closely'.
Also notable, a Fox News Poll conducted the day after the Boston bombings found that only 43% of Americans would be willing to give up personal freedoms in order to reduce the threat of terrorism. A month after 9/11 this percentage was at 71%.
The differences between the Boston bombings and the 9/11 attacks cannot be underplayed in terms of scale, motivation, and psychological impact. However, we should not ignore the extent to which the tragedy in Boston demonstrated that the nation is more capable of a measured and reasonable response to acts of terror.
The historian and Boston native Doris Kearns Goodwin recently expressed her optimism in the capacity of Americans by quoting Ernest Hemingway: 'Everyone is broken by life but some people are stronger in the broken places.' Many of the excesses of the post-9/11 response to the threat of terror remain in place and will be structurally and politically difficult to dismantle, so the nation may not yet be stronger. But in terms of discourse and public sentiment, this is a nation on the mend.