We Still Don't Know the First Thing About Terrorists

What we in the news media wrote about the Boston bombing said much more about us, ourselves, than about the Tsarnaevs, or terrorists in general.

We still don't know the first thing about terrorists.

We think we know. After all this time and tragedy, after all that the defining scourge of this century has scarred us and found new places to cut fresh wounds, we think we know what terrorism is like, what it means, where to take the information.

We don’t know the first thing about it.

We still don’t know what makes terrorists cross the lines that separate mad from madness, and madness from evildoing. We don't know what gene sequence, or what power of persuasion, or what overwhelming despair it is that translates ideology into atrocity, and religious devotion into suicidal mass murder.

That's part of why terrorism scares us to death. We don't know terrorists at heart - none of us, certainly not those of us who have a media platform or a cable program to preach from. We don't know the first thing about what really goes on inside their heads. But that doesn’t stop us from pretending that we do.

Boston is proof, if more was needed. The people of that city responded with bravery and grace to terrorist bombings meant to kill innocent people, children among them, and to stain the most cherished of their traditions.

We could have left it at that. We, what used to be called news people, could have waited to learn what we could from what is only now beginning to emerge as a rounded picture of the suspects, and of a city which had never experienced the like of this.

But in all too many cases, mine among them, what we put out said a whole lot more about us, ourselves, than about the Tsarnaevs, or terrorists in general, or what could have been done to see this coming and keep it from happening.

In the view of columnist and Fox News commentator Mark Steyn, the bombings were yet another instance of an overly liberal America's refusal to allow itself to think honestly about "abortion, welfare, immigration, terrorism, Islam."

"Maybe if we didn't collapse the skulls of so many black babies in Philadelphia," Steyn concludes, in a reference to late-term abortions, "we wouldn't need to import so many excitable young Chechens."

Some even appeared to see something of a silver lining in Boston's tragedy. "We who live in democracies learn best about Islamism when blood flows in the streets," neo-conservative ideologue Daniel Pipes wrote last week in the Washington Times, calling his piece: "Education by murder in Boston."

Pipes, noting a "very important" potential consequence in the Marathon bombings, declared that "Indeed, every act of Muslim aggression against non-Muslims, be it violent or cultural, recruits more activists to the anti-jihad cause, more voters to insurgent parties, more demonstrators to anti-immigrant street efforts, and more donors to anti-Islamist causes."

If some on the right were quick to reject any association between Islamist terrorism and U.S. – and for that matter, Israeli – military operations, some on the left seemed to see little else.

"Why not recognize that the Tsarnaev brothers were almost certainly responding to American violence against their comrades abroad?" wrote Richard E. Rubenstein, a professor of conflict resolution.

"Like many of their readers and viewers, reporters seem strangely oblivious of what seems obvious: the terrorist acts in Boston were payback for perceived atrocities by Americans in the two-decade long fight against militant Islamism."

I admit it. I'm slow. Nothing in this terrible story of the Boston bombings is obvious to me. I have seen terrorism up close, what it does to people. I have talked with terrorists and their victims. I have had dreams haunted by the sight of strips of human flesh hanging from a charred bus ceiling. But still I know nothing about why terrorists do what they do - why millions of people may share an opinion, but only a scant few of them decide to take it out on innocent people they don't know, and murder them.

I know only this about terrorism: It is evil. We can spin it as we like, bend it to our own prejudices, but it remains evil authentic, in all of its forms, justifications, and euphemisms. Its victims deserve every ounce of support, respect, and comfort that we can bring to bear.

All of us, I've come to believe, have some of the terrorist inside us, and some of the first responder, as well. The inner terrorist in each one of us may speak in a voice that's all too clear, counseling vengeance, excusing the targeting of the unarmed and the innocent, stunting moral decisions, drowning out the voice and the wisdom of the first responder .

It may also be, that the voice of the first responder bears an uncomfortable message, that both sides and both extremes are partially right. That terrorism has roots both in the teachings of Islamic extremism and in the West's often brutal, often counter-productive responses to it.

But it's the first responder in us that makes us human. That makes us brave and clear-headed when we have no business being so, simply because people who are hurting need us.

If nothing else, it explains one reason that terrorists do what they do. Terrorists make it next to impossible to listen to anyone else. Little wonder that they also target first responders.

I don't know the first thing about terrorists, but I know this: It's the first responder in us that takes the greater risk, trying to rescue us from the blindness and the smoke of our rage, and find a way through to our humanity.

FBI