Coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing once again revealed the great strength and enduring weakness of TV’s news channels. As during past events, from people’s demonstrations to natural disasters, the cameras were there for us, witnessing and recording. We watched, even when irritated by relentless repetition of the same incident, and the images etched themselves into our minds.
The weakness became evident as soon as the networks returned to the studios. The questions raised by the networks’ hosts, some disturbingly naïve or vague, had no chance of receiving answers – or even fragments and slivers of answers. Washington’s “conventional wisdom,” delivered with the required solemnity of the occasion, produced the usual clichés and platitudes we expect by now from “experts” or “analysts” inhabiting the capital’s think tanks and studio green rooms.
One host (it was on either CNN or MSNBC) wondered if, a day after the marathon, we could call the explosions an “act of terror.” Her question calls for the kind of context and history neither she, nor her fellow hosts and hired analysts, are able (or willing) to provide. But the viewers might like to hear just what distinguishes an act of terror from an act of war, and perhaps why the lines between the two are no longer easily recognizable or accepted.
Sure, job No. 1 is to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. But I suspect many viewers might like to know just when and how war can be terror, too – and they also might like to know when many individuals, groups and nations ceased to accept and act as if the two never joined to become permanently intertwined.
That Boston was an act to terrorize civilians is clear. Soldiers in battle almost always committed similar atrocities, but they were not recognized or acknowledged as part and parcel of the “real” war waged between uniformed combatants. All of that changed when German planes bombed the Spanish city of Guernica in 1936 to support Gen. Francisco Franco during Spain’s Civil War. Adolph Hitler’s air force used the lessons from the rehearsal in Guernica to carry out bombing of civilian populations in Warsaw, Rotterdam and London to destroy the morale of the enemy. It worked in some places, and it didn’t in others. But it killed and maimed.
After the Allies had achieved air superiority in Europe, England and America fire-bombed Hamburg and Dresden, killing about 40,000 German civilians in the former city, 25,000 in the latter. If they couldn’t destroy the workplaces in Germany that still produced tanks and aircraft, they should kill the workers and their families, the reasoning went. Afterward, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had second thoughts. In a famous memo to his chief of staff in 1945, he wrote: “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.”
The Cold War and the hot wars during and after it, from Vietnam to the Middle East, precluded the review Churchill proposed. In the heat of battle and obsession with ideology, the pretexts carried the day. The lines between “legitimate” war and base terror now depend on where you stand in the political, ethnic or religious clash.
As of this writing, one of the two suspects in the marathon bombing has been killed, while the other is being hunted down. Others may be involved. What remains missing from commentary on TV is the understanding that terror has many homes in which it is nourished, and that its perpetrators seem, until they act, ordinary human beings. That’s because they are. Call it the “banality of terrorists,” but not the “banality of terror” itself.
Someday we may learn the “pretext” under which they terrorized. But what can stop terrorism, by now seen in some quarters as the legitimate means to fight oppression by superior military or economic power? Left-wing historian Howard Zinn pooh-poohed the effort: “How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?” he asked. But that faux-helplessness is effectively countered by Catholic theologians, who suggested that war is justified or permissible only to confront “a real and certain danger” in the protection of innocent life, for the preservation of conditions necessary for a decent human existence or to secure basic human rights.
American TV viewers, I like to think, can understand all of that. And if they were exposed to it, they could provide their own answers to the question asked by the TV host.
George Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.