Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect news events.
Until this week, Americans had been living in something of a bubble. Nothing like the Boston Marathon bombing had happened to us for a very long time—since around Sept. 11, 2001, in fact. Despite repeated waves of overseas terrorism from Europe to the Middle East, the United States had avoided the epidemic of IEDs. Indeed, in the nearly 12 years since 9/11, thanks to successful law enforcement, the only other well-known and successful domestic terrorist attacks have been the anthrax attacks of October 2001; the November 2009 massacre at Fort Hood by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan; and an incident in Austin, Texas, in 2010 when a man flew his plane into an IRS building, killing himself and one other person.
Yet the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon, which left three people dead and injured nearly 200, was a terrifying reminder that—as our soldiers have found over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan—we still live in a dangerous world that can erupt in front of us at any moment. The same week, the attempt to send ricin-poisoned letters to President Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., delivered a frightening echo of the autumn of 9/11, when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were followed quickly by anthrax mailings that left five people dead.
The Boston probe, especially, was revealing of just how many potential threats exist out there, from very different perpetrators, both at home and from overseas. Through most of this week, law-enforcement authorities—hounded by an overeager and error-prone media horde—did not know which way to point. Was it a lone jihadist inspired by websites that offer detailed techniques in making homemade pressure-cooker bombs? Was it a right-wing militant who might have been absorbing the same literature? Perhaps a Unabomber-type who, living an alienated life in some garret somewhere, had been stewing up some as-yet-unknown antigovernment ideology? Look on any street corner, as the movie line goes.
But the suspects seem to have ties to Chechnya.
We have been kidding ourselves. The relative calm at home until now has been largely an illusion, one that has been helped along by our dedicated FBI and law-enforcement authorities. It is belied by the growing rage and intent of extremist organizations, both U.S. groups connected to right-wing extremism and do-it-yourself jihadists inspired by Internet preaching. The U.S. has enraged Muslim extremists with drone strikes in countries from Pakistan to Yemen, and new strains of al-Qaida are “on the rise,” as then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned just before she left office.
Homegrown right-wingers are also angry. The timing of the Boston bombing, coming on Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts—sometimes deemed inspirational to militant groups at home—made some experts suspicious that the rage at Obama roiling just beneath the surface might have burst through. “The actual successful attacks have obviously died down, but there is a huge resurgence [of anger] since Obama was elected,” says Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University. “All these discussions about whether they’re going to take away our guns would be another reason to suspect antigovernment groups.”
Until this week, it was fair to say that law enforcement had been winning. In the years since 9/11, there had been many close calls involving bombing attempts, but all had been stopped in time—until Monday. Indeed, if there’s any area of almost total continuity between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it is this: assiduous counterterrorism efforts at home.
Despite FBI sting tactics that have aroused the wrath of some civil libertarians, law enforcement has been fiercely successful in interdicting plots that could easily have resulted in as much or more mayhem than we saw in Boston.
“You have to applaud the efforts of our enforcement agencies to foil terror plots,” says Hedieh Mirahmadi, a Muslim community organizer based in Washington who has worked with federal agencies to interdict radicals. “We’ve had a large number of homegrown terror plots stopped. That’s a tremendous record. That began under Bush as well, and let’s be fair and say that.”
While we were hardly paying attention, authorities have stopped a stream of would-be jihadist terrorists in Washington, New York, and other cities in recent years. After Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani émigré, almost detonated an explosive-packed vehicle in Times Square in May 2010, Obama grew almost obsessed about the near miss and stepped up efforts to interdict domestic terrorists, aides said. “The president wakes up thinking about what he can do to stop attacks,” a senior administration official said then.
In fact, it now looks like something of a miracle that, until Monday, no one had gotten through. The illusion is over. Time to get vigilant again.
All Americans can help in that vigilance, more than ever before, as we are learning in the Boston investigation. Law-enforcement officials in Boston have been crowd-sourcing their way through streams of video from businesses along the marathon route, as well as cell-phone images from spectators, to identify the culprit(s). Once, the ordinary citizen was the hapless victim of the super-empowered nut. But this is also the age of a super-empowered public. It’s the bad guys’ technology versus ours. The race is on.