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It's Not "Senseless"

I should begin what may be an unpopular entry with a reminder that I am a guest blogger here, not an officer of CJLF.  What I say does not necessarily reflect CJLF's views.

Much  --  almost surely too much  --  will be said in coming days about the Boston Marathon bombings.  A considerable portion of it will be self-congratulatory mush about how we "come together as a people" in the face of the "senseless loss," to use President Obama's exact phrase in his reaction yesterday

This is so much nonsense.  First, we will not come together.  The same fundamental divisions about security, intelligence operations, interrogation and civil liberties about which the nation has been divided for years will re-surface almost immediately.

Second  --  and this is the point I want to stress for now  -- the bombings were not "senseless," and if Obama really thinks anything like that, he is deluded.  They make plenty of sense.
It's clear beyond rational argument that the attacks were well planned and executed (apparently two more bombs were found near the finish line).  It is equally clear that they were intended to produce exactly what they did  --  death, grievous injury, suffering, disfigurement and horror.  Whoever brought this off knew exactly what he (or they) were doing, and spent more than a little time doing it.

An enterprise like that is many things, but "senseless" is not one of them. Malevolent, yes; sinister, yes; calculated, yes; senseless, no.

I obviously don't know what brand of terrorist is behind this, but it has the hallmarks of Jihad  --  coordinated bombings at a soft target with lots of civilians, directed at a sort of national icon.  But terror it is, one way or the other.  It's a tragedy, sure, but much more and much worse than that.

My objection to Obama's characterization of this as "senseless" is more than semantic.  Both our tactics and our objectives in responding will be influenced by our view of the nature of the bombings.  If the President really thinks we're dealing with people whose actions make no sense  --  who just don't think  -- our view of how to pursue and, eventually, punish them cannot help but be misshapen if not incoherent. If, on the other hand, we understand that we are up against purposeful people, people for whom murder is both the means to an end and an end in itself, our reaction will be more focused, and has a better chance of being anchored in strategic clarity and moral confidence. 

My concern with the President's mushy language is heightened by the fact that the Administration has used it repeatedly before.  Indeed it seems to be on the White House word processor as a substitute for hard thinking.  For example, the Administration used the same phrase to characterize the terrorist attack at Ft. Hood three and a half years ago.  And even though the identity of the killer was known immediately, nothing approaching the "full weight of justice" has been done or is about to be done (again contrary to Obama's bluster both in that case and yesterday).  To the exact contrary, in reacting to Ft. Hood's stone-face murders, the Administration has indulged legal process run amok, as years go by litigating whether the killer can or cannot wear a beard in court.

As long as we are so foolish as to think we are dealing with people who engage in mere "senseless" murder, that is the kind of silliness we can expect. 

It won't do. When confronting those who challenge the fundamentals of civilized life, who murder little children and blow the limbs off people watching a race, silliness is more than maddening.  It's dangerous.  We have not seen the last of it, and we had best get a grasp on what we're dealing with.

Yesterday's acts were not senseless.  The first thing Obama needs to understand in reacting to them is that they made lots of sense.   


Thanks Bill for this important post.

I too strongly object to any reference to this atrocity as "senseless." It makes one think that our Commander In Chief still does not recognize the threat radical Islam poses to the American way of life.

Your post should be unpopular.

You have chosen to define senseless by its least common use: insensate or unconscious. I, and I suspect most, understand senseless in this context to mean both "lacking or deficient in sense" and "foolish and stupid." If, as you suggest, President Obama is using senseless to suggest that the acts were the product of insanity, perhaps using your chosen meaning, then I would find his comments to be unwarranted and objectionable given the lack of any evidence on this point.

The remainder of your post should be unpopular for the same reason. With no information about the actors or planners, you have announced that this terrible, foolish, idiotic, (and senseless?) act has the "hallmarks of Jihad." There's little to no evidence for such an assertion. Solo actors (e.g., Atlanta in 1996) and groups of many different stripes (IRA, McVeigh & Co., Weather Underground) have undertaken similar missions. Without more evidence, a more cautious approach is warranted.

Even assuming the acts were orchestrated and perpetrated by religious extremists who call their own acts "Jihad," your post should be unpopular. By using "Jihad," you have implicitly accepted the extremists' repurposing of Jihad, a disservice to the overwhelming majority of Muslims and to Islam. It needlessly accepts the extremists' hateful and inaccurate narrative of the United States and Christianity being at war with Islam and acknowledges Jihad, as the extremists have distorted it, as a response. I reject this narrative, and I assume you do, too.

Thus, I think you should reconsider your rush to tie the acts to a particular ideology and use of the term "Jihad."

A few points.

-- I am unconcerned about popularity. Were it otherwise, I would not have chosen to spend much of my career as a federal prosecutor -- a job quite unpopular with a certain element.

-- I have used "senseless" in its ordinary, everyday meaning, to wit, making no sense. But this attack makes plenty of sense to those who planned it, and we had best understand that if we aim to be effective in counteracting them.

-- The bombing was not foolish, idiotic or stupid. Those terms might be applied to some drunken fraternity prank, sure. To apply them to this calculated atrocity is to stretch beyond the breaking point seeking to minimize it. Why do you want to do that? To induce complacency?

-- Jihad operates in exactly the manner of this bombing. It closely resembles Jihadist attacks on Israeli market places, schools and bus stops. It was also launched, as were the 9-11 Jihadist attacks, on a nationally prominent symbol. If you're missing this, it's because you want to miss it.

-- Andy McCarthy of National Review Online has done a tremendous job of explaining the meaning of Jihad. I can't possibly go into all of it now, but essentially it is a holy war against infidels, defined by Islam to mean anyone who isn't Muslim.

-- Almost 12 years after 9-11, it's late in the day to pretend that radical Islam is not a deadly enemy of the United States. I said in the post that I don't know right now (as no one but the bombers do) who pulled this off. If it turns out not to be Jihadists, what that will mean is that we have something else to exterminate beyond Jihadism, not that we can become complacent or soft-headed.

-- This blog is not about religion. But I'm not going to overlook that religious fanaticism is a deadly threat. I agree that most Muslims want to live in peace and safety, as all of us do, but "most" isn't "all," and the ones engaged in terror attacks belong in the death chamber (as, for example, does Maj. Hasan, beard or no beard).

Not that it really matters all that much, it is unlikely this incident was related to radical Islam. The purpose of terror is to know who did it. If the real culprit is never known, it won't further Islamic fundamentalist objectives. That is my two cents.

I am not very religious, so I don't really care which version of the Near Eastern Storm God people worship, so terms like "jihad" and "islamic fundamentalist" don't really mean much to me than any other terrorist. I'm much more worried about the crackpots in charge in North Korea.

Islamic fundamentalist objectives are furthered whenever their cowardly acts shatter America's sense of security and public order. Best estimates are that their ranks total 80 million worldwide. Their willingness to kill and maim innocents make them an omnipresent threat to our security.

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