In 2004, John Kerry responded to a question about terrorism by noting, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.”
Bush made hay out of this quote, but Kerry was absolutely right.
The Boston bombing was a human tragedy, but in the grand scheme of things… A nuisance. More people died in the Texas fertilizer plant fire.
That said, a lot of people are going to look at the case and somehow see this as something more, something bigger. We’re going to hear a lot about immigration and even more about radicalization.
Unfortunately, most of what we’re going to hear is just dead wrong. I’ve spent a lot of time working on the issue of “radicalization.” I can’t claim my views are widely accepted, but I’d argue the empirics support my view.
Anyway, my view is this: Radicalization is epiphenomenal and opportunistic, and hence not a useful focus of policy response.
In terms of being epiphenomenal, you will find that almost all case of radicalization follow rather than cause personal crisis. Individuals who are “radicalized” and turn to terrorism often already have money woes, job loss, the collapse of relationships, or the onset of psychological symptoms, at the very least depression and anxiety disorders, but often paranoid schizophrenia.
In terms of opportunism… Radicalized individuals are usually people who have, essentially, been emptied out by personal crisis. For some, radical Islamist ideology fills the gaps. For others it is booze or sex or drugs or suicide. Anyway, we’re not talking about master criminals, working at the behest of brilliant external puppet masters. We’re talking about broken individuals who are not just manipulated, but eager to be manipulated to give their lives meaning.
It is a sad and tragic situation. It is particularly tragic for the victims. But from a societal perspective it is a nuisance.