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Imbalance of Terror: The Boston Bombings and Other Mindless Acts

The Cold War was described as a "balance of terror" maintained by the opposing nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side had enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy not just the other side, but all of the world's peoples. The craziness of the situation was portrayed in Stanley Kubrick's film, "Dr. Strangelove."

Today, the wars afflicting the planet are hot, and there doesn't seem to be much balance anywhere, though there is still more than enough craziness to go around. World War I inspired (and was inspired by) the notion of a "war to end war," but what kind of mentality today imagines a war on terror? Possibly only Dr. Strangelove himself.

The Boston Marathon bombings, widely viewed as an instance of terror, suggest at least two important points about terror and the war on terror.

First, the effect of terror is not only and always negative. In fact, the immediate and continuing reaction in Boston and elsewhere in the U.S. is a strongly positive affirmation. The Harvard Crimsonreported celebrations in the streets as residents learned of the killing and capture of the suspects.

Moreover, the bombings provoked an outpouring of donations to help victims. The contributions poured into One Fund Boston, sufficient to provide "well over $1 million" to families of the dead and those who lost more than one limb, according to fund administrator Ken Feinberg.

In short, terror doesn't necessarily terrorize. Sometimes it strengthens the will of the victims to fight back. We should know this from studying the U.S. wars in the Mideast, where drones and assassinations are part of the war effort. In a recent meeting with U.S. and Afghan officials, Pakistani President Zardari referred to the drone attacks as "highly counter productive in the war against militants as it inflamed public sentiments due to innocent civilian casualties."

The second point, intertwined with the first, is that one person's "terrorist" is another person's "freedom fighter." Ronald Reagan quoted that statement in 1986, when he argued that terrorists, unlike freedom fighters, "intentionally kill or maim unarmed civilians, often women and children, often third parties who are not in any way part of a dictatorial regime." This distinction is lost in the "war on terror."

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As Moshin Hamid writes in a review of two reports about the drone wars, "the term 'militant' is often used in describing drone casualties. …[But] a member of the Taliban, planning to attack U.S. troops is not the same as [a person] who normally herds livestock, carries a rifle, and today is sitting with other members of his clan to discuss a threat to his isolated village from a neighboring clan." One of the tactics of drone warfare is to attack any gathering in an area where 'militants' are thought to be present.

One Fund Boston administrator Feinberg counseled the marathon victims to lower their expectations, saying, "If you had a billion dollars you would not have enough money to deal with the problems with these attacks.” Imagine, then, what it would take to deal with the problems of the drone attacks. Four persons were killed in Boston (including one police officer) and fewer than 300 injured. Reports cited by Hamid from international sources put the drone death toll in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas between 2,500 and 4,000.

One of the great ironies—if terror can be said to be ironic—is that the drone campaign focuses on the tribal peoples whose lands are between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those two states have been fighting in this area for years—at least since 1893, when a line was drawn on a map of the border between British colonial India and Afghanistan. The tribal peoples that have borne the brunt of this century-old conflict are today bearing the brunt of the U.S. drones.

One might have thought that the U.S. wars against Indians were long over, but the facts speak otherwise. What was common parlance among GIs in Vietnam—the enemy territory was "Indian country"—persists today. The "frontier" everywhere seems to be a war against indigenous peoples.

It is surely ironic—in the sense of purposely-affected ignorance—that the tribal peoples being attacked by drones are described as "lawless." This is the same imagery of "savagery" versus "civilization" that has dominated the political viewpoint of states for centuries. Again and again, the perpetrators of state violence have clothed themselves in the rhetoric of "law" while they carry out schemes of violence.

As Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and one-time Political Agent in South Waziristan [Tribal] Agency, put it, describing the drone campaign in the tribal areas, the U.S. "knew everything yet understood nothing."

It's time to look in the mirror when we discuss terror, to understand the dysfunction and inevitable backlash of all such violence. There never was a "balance of terror," but only a constantly shifting imbalance, and the damage is always greater than the compensation.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.