April 19, 2013 6:32 pm

First lessons from Boston’s manhunt

We should avoid sweeping generalisations about the attacks

Whatever consensus emerges about the motivations of Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers suspected of the Boston marathon bombs, it is likely to shape US counter-terrorism for years to come. It is vital to stick to what we know. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Massachusetts State Police have done an impressive job of sifting the evidence and enlisting the public in their manhunt, which has already claimed the life of one police officer. So too have Boston’s hospitals and fire services. Everyone else should be wary of the fog of half-fact, retracted claims, rumour and denial that proliferates at such moments.

So much is still hazy. As the FT went to press, it was not clear whether the Tsarnaev brothers were acting alone, or whether they were part of a larger ideological group with links to Islamists in the Caucasus and beyond. Should it be the latter, it is unclear whether their Muslim faith played a role, or whether their radicalisation had its roots in the brutal Russian response to the rebellion in their native Chechnya in the late 1990s. Were they isolated or part of a group? Homegrown or imported? Were they one-offs or part of a larger pattern?

Until we are sure of the answers, generalisations should be treated with suspicion. On Friday Chuck Grassley, the Iowa senator, linked the Tsarnaev brothers’ foreign-born status to proposals for comprehensive US immigration reform, which he opposes. There is no link between the Senate’s draft immigration bill and the ghastly events in Boston. The brothers were legal refugees who were partly schooled in the US. It would make as much sense to scapegoat undocumented Hispanic workers as to close down the Boston high schools the brothers attended. This is irresponsible politics.

There are legitimate questions we can already ask. The two brothers were able to acquire explosives, firearms and bomb-making equipment with apparent ease. There may be lessons that the FBI can learn from the UK, France and others about how to monitor potential homegrown terrorists. These, in turn, will raise questions about the brothers’ easy access to material that can kill on a large scale. Three lives were tragically cut short on Monday. It could easily have been 30. Given that the suspects had firearms, it was unfortunate that the US Senate this week shot down a bill to tighten background checks on gun purchases.

Finally, public calm remains paramount. Residents of Boston on Friday must have felt they had awoken to martial law. Let us hope the presence of large numbers of armed police on empty rush-hour streets proves to be a one-off. It is not a fate anyone should wish on America.

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