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April 19, 2013 7:22 pm
The convergence of police Swat teams on the Watertown, Massachusetts neighbourhood where they believed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be holed up on Friday marked the culmination of the first crowd-sourced manhunt.
Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan, who was killed in Watertown on Thursday night after an exchange of bombs and gunfire, are the prime suspects in the terrorist bombings that killed three and maimed many more at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Millions of Americans were following the stake-out live, or almost live, via reddits, tweets and blog postings. The Cambridge police shut off its Twitter feed for fear of tipping off the suspect. We are entering a new chapter in the war on terror.
It is extraordinary to consider, barely a decade after the September 11 2001 attacks on the US, that there were no mobile phone photos or videos of that attack. Back then the technology for taking them was not ubiquitous; even for any early-adopters there was no YouTube on which to post images.
In the wake of the marathon bombings the problem has been not a lack of clues but a surfeit. At Thursday’s press conference, where photos of the Tsarnaev brothers were first revealed, agent Richard DesLauriers warned: “These images should be the only ones – I emphasise, the only ones – the public should view to assist us.” Doubtless there were other pictures of the brothers that could be gathered, but they might “unnecessarily divert the public’s attention in the wrong direction and create undue work for vital law enforcement resources”.
Mr DesLauriers was inviting the public to serve as the “eyes and ears” of the duly constituted police authority – but not its brain. This distinction is worth bearing in mind should anyone claim that the internet “solved” the marathon bombing. The internet has been an important tool in gathering raw information. But it did not empower the public that gathered the information. It empowered the people who had investigative expertise independent of the internet.
Networked amateurs showed incredible ingenuity, patience and logic. But they did not get to the bottom of the case. The various photos assembled on infowars.com , for instance, were painstakingly examined, intelligently sorted and carefully marked, but they led elsewhere than to the Tsarnaev brothers. And even after the Tsarnaevs were identified it was difficult to piece together a coherent story about them through the internet. Dzhokhar was mentioned as having been born in Kyrgyzstan, although the boys’ father lives in Dagestan, and Chechen authorities place them in Kazakhstan. Tamerlan posted a prophecy on line that is popular among al-Qaeda, but he expressed enthusiasm for Shiism, too, which does not add up. In a reposted profile, Tamerlan, a boxer, expressed alienation from the US (he had no friends there) and affection (he was in the process of seeking citizenship). Even as gunfire rang out in Watertown, the story of the Boston bombers was full of things half known.
In this light, we can see just how good, and how important, was the speech that President Barack Obama delivered on Thursday afternoon at an interfaith prayer service at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. It was clear at the time he was hitting the right notes; in light of the authorities’ bloody encounter with the Tsarnaev brothers, it looks like a high point of his presidency.
Mr Obama may have known the Tsarnaevs were prime suspects; his listeners did not. All they knew was that whoever had done this awful thing was still on the loose. A leader never has more than a limited amount of political capital in his possession. One lapse of tone and he will sound as if he is scolding people who have just seen their friends’ and relatives’ legs blown off. You cannot expect people to take that in their stride.
One needs to stop invidious speculation when the malefactors are unknown, and vigilantism when they are known but unreachable. This is more difficult than it sounds. The president cited a passage from Paul’s second letter to Timothy: “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” In so doing, he managed to counsel people away from unproductive anger without ever seeming to lecture them or to talk them out of doing justice.
It has never been easy to say what Mr Obama’s strengths and weaknesses are. They are hard to disentangle. His defeat this week in what looked to be an unlosable legislative battle over gun control shows some of his political failings, which need not detain us here. Next to what he did on Thursday, legislative battles appear petty and parochial. His consoling of the city of Boston, and of the country at large, may have been his finest presidential moment.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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