Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 18, 2013

Expecting Evil

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 18, 2013

On Monday two “pressure cooker bombs” exploded in Boston killing three and injuring more than 180. Eighteen years ago Friday a 5000 pound bomb exploded in Oklahoma City killing 168 people and injuring 450.

On the same day as the Boston attack at least 50 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in a series of early-morning car bomb explosions in cities across Iraq.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday (April 17) at least 44 non-combatants and over 200 combatants were killed in that civil war. Among yesterday’s dead were four children, bringing the total number of children killed since March 2011 to over 5000.

We have been taught to view such attacks as self-conscious tactical choices endemic to certain kinds of violent political (or religious) conflict. The legal definition of terrorism usually involves the application of indiscriminate violence with the intention to influence political decisions. In this conceptualization we demonstrate some of the same preoccupation with self that characterizes the “terrorist”. It must be about us. Not always or even often.

April 15 is also the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth claimed political purposes. It was too late in the war to have any realistic hope of reversing confederate fortunes. But it was a ripe moment for a megalomaniacal if mediocre actor to make a very real claim on immortality as a latter day self-proclaimed Brutus.

On April 16, 2007 Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks. This year’s Boston Marathon was dedicated to the memory of those killed by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut. Saturday is the anniversary of Columbine.

Such attacks are not about the victims or those of us who survive or our political choices. Whoever constructed, delivered, and detonated the Boston bomb had no specific intention to kill Martin Richard, age 8, or injure Martin’s seven-year-old sister and mother. If a political manifesto is ever found or offered, give particular attention to how — if — the attack is explained as a change-agent. Is it even minimally persuasive? Usually not.

The justifications typically range between self-aggrandizing and deeply delusional. Timothy McVeigh characterized his bombing of the Murrah Building as, “borrowing a page from U.S. foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile.”

These sort of attacks are an effort by the attacker to express power: to most-of-all convince himself (almost always a him) that he has power. Similar attacks by so-called “terrorist” groups also seek to reinforce and extend self-assertions of power. Victims are much more tools — totems of inadequacy overcome — than targets, in any traditional understanding of target.

Too often we inadvertently feed these delusions in how we magnify the risk and in this way inflate the ego of the attacker and those similarly predisposed. Most of these pathetic men (and a few women) are thrilled to be seen as a somehow existential threat to the most powerful nation on the planet.

On Tuesday President Obama spoke of how Boston is responding to the attack, he said, “if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil — that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid.”

Thirty-or-so years ago President Reagan unexpectedly involved me in a quick but intense discussion of the Holocaust. I had a difficult time keeping up with where the President was going and what he was trying to work out. But I very clearly remember one line: “Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.”

We should do a great deal to prevent attacks. We are making an extraordinary effort to identify and hold accountable whoever is behind the Boston attack. But in this important work we will sometimes fail. Where we can be more certain of success is in engaging with courage and compassion those who have been abused as tools of another’s self-assertion.

Evil is persistent. Evil will recur. Fear feeds evil. Courage starves evil. Love confuses, confounds, and contains evil.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2013 @ 5:37 am

For anyone with a “specialist” concern for homeland security this has been an extraordinary several days.

Last evening’s blast at a fertilizer plant near Waco — especially on the eve of the violent end of the 1993 Waco siege and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — has certainly increased our adrenalin level.

And there are supposedly ricin letters being sent to senators and the President, indictments offered in the assassination of Texas prosecutors, Senate action (or the opposite) related to gun violence, floods beginning in the upper Mississippi and Red River valleys… and, of course, we are both grieving and active in regard to the Boston bombings.

After completing today’s post I received an email that includes an inspirational message with which I mostly agree (I will include this other message in a second comment, immediately below). The main message being that good people significantly outnumber bad people.

But, especially for homeland security professionals, this truth — and it is true — is not as germane as another: We are each capable of good and evil.

I recognize willful self-assertion in myself. I see it almost daily in petty expressions of power by a whole range of people. And too often we seriously underestimate the consequences of this behavior that falls short of bombing, but is ugly, violent, and destructive all the same.

I suggest it is a particular responsibility of the homeland security professional to be self-aware of his or her own abusive tendencies. This self-awareness is our best tool for choosing courage instead of fear, compassion instead of hate.

With this self-awareness — and self-critique — we can avoid using others as tools, and sharpen our own tools for doing good.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2013 @ 5:42 am

Following is from a comment on Boston made by the actor Patton Oswalt on his Facebook page. It is evidently going “viral.”

… I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2013 @ 9:18 am

All well and good as to postive on site reactions by the majority!

But hey I have a problem and hoping bloggers here or commentators or otherw will help me out.

What is the problem with my formula–just condemn violence against innocents?

Notice the President does not use this formula because he commits violence against innocents on an almost daily basis. And so do many officials in the IC and Armed Forces. I don’t measure intent or motivation but just the end results.

And few religions world wide and their leaders condemn violence against innocents and if so not clearly enough to impact their followers.

So who is an innocent? Those powerless to protect themselves from organized force or violence. An organized force or violence includes that perpetrated by individuals acting on their own beliefs or mental instability.

One of my question is what legal or illegal psychotropic drugs are those committing the violence ingesting?

And for the 40% of American adults using psychtropic drugs [Prozac Nation] who is focusing on their proclivity to violence or even gun possession?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2013 @ 11:02 am


I am trying to suggest that when it comes to violence (and especially quasi-violence) most of us don’t usually need much of a push — pharmaceutical or otherwise. Presidents are not the only one’s capable of self-justifying “collateral damage.” I am concerned that too often we excuse our abuse of innocents with self-righteous justifications including self-defense or public safety or organizational discipline or good parenting.

And I am trying to suggest that even while this tendency to self-assertion, self-righteousness, and using others is very real, as a species we also regularly demonstrate the ability to choose otherwise. The crucial difference — often — is a readiness to recognize and, perhaps, even to confess my (our) own divided nature.

Another reader just sent me an email (I wish he would comment here!) quoting Mark Lilla: “One of the guilty pleasures of reading Plato comes from recognizing human types who claim to want truth, when all they are after is comfort or recognition or domination or revenge or support for their moral and political prejudices. And the discomfort experienced in reading about them is that you occasionally run across yourself. The dialogues force anyone who thinks he cares about philosophy to take a look in the mirror and asking et tu?”

I am arguing that the horrible events of recent and prior days should force anyone who thinks s/he cares about homeland security to begin each day by taking a look in the mirror and ask et tu? And then answering that on this day I will not abuse the innocent or the constitution or the trust I have been granted. Today I will be courageous and compassionate.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

Thanks Phil and Plato quote from the Republic? I in my comment spoke to those with semblance of rationality. Obviously many of these events seem rationale to those who commit them but are not rational under any guise.

And not sure how HS deals with the irrational?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 19, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

A couple of other voices that I think are relevant to this discussion of motivation… or origin… or causation… or what I have described as the persistence of evil.

Robin Young is the host of Here & Now a Boston-based public radio news program. She has met “suspect 2”. He graduated in the same high school class with Ms. Young’s nephew and has attended social events at her home.

Much more background is available at the Here & Now website.

Following is a column by the Globe’s Kevin Cullen. It is bad practice to pluck the whole column from the paper and plug it in here. But I think it is really worth your reading and thinking. I intend to come back to it with my own commentary.

I don’t agree with every aspect of Mr. Cullen’s take on the emerging reality. But I think it is an emotionally persuasive piece of writing that sets out most of the key issues that also interest me.


Somebody who went to high school with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev described him as a class clown.

Well, that 19-year-old class clown has somehow managed to trap 1 million people in Boston and its western suburbs in their homes as he and the police officers who think they might have him surrounded prepare for a final encounter, the outcome of which we all think we know.

Dzhokhar — the American kids he went to school with pronounce it Ja-har — is alone now. Unless he has hostages.

His big brother, 26-year-old Tamerlan, is dead, a fate big brother must have known awaited them. He probably even welcomed it.

By some accounts, he, the big brother, dragged the class clown into his huge orbit of grievance, real or perceived, about the great Satan. That, of course, being the very country that gave the Tsarnaev brothers more opportunity than they ever would have had if they had stayed in the troubled, poor country where they were born, Kyrgyzstan, or if the troubled, poor country where their ancestors came from, and that would be Chechnya.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries spawned by the breakup of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of its 5 million people bugged out of the central Asia country in the years that followed the collapse of a system of government built on repression and corruption. It appears the Tsarnaev brothers, ethnic Chechens, began a nomadic trek that eventually brought them to, of all places, Cambridge.

I hear that poor, put-upon Tamerlan complained that Americans didn’t like him. That he didn’t have any American friends. Blah, blah, blah. He thought Harry Potter books created pagans and condemned anyone who let their children read J.K. Rowling’s books. Now that’s some pretty forward thinking.

Cambridge is probably the most tolerant swath of these United States. It is a sanctuary city for immigrants. We’re not just talking about a few well-meaning lefties wearing Birkenstocks and “Free Tibet” T-shirts. The people of Cambridge, the city government of Cambridge, have created a wonderful community, the most inclusive, generous community to outsiders I have ever encountered. People in Cambridge go out of their way to be nice to, and genuinely supportive of, people like the Tsarnaev brothers.

I wouldn’t doubt that Tamerlan Tsarnaev encountered some jerks over the years. We all do. It’s called life. If Tamerlan Tsarnaev nursed murderous grudges because it was so hard to grow up and live in Cambridge, then he was, as his uncle said, a loser.

Kids who went to Rindge and Latin High School with Dzhokhar said he was a terrific wrestler, which makes sense. In the country he was born, the Kyrgyzs are among the best wrestlers in the world. They regularly medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in international competitions, including the Olympics. One kid told me Dzhokhar got a scholarship, which he used to attend the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth.

Here’s the portrait emerging, still subject to lots more reporting and confirmation and separation of fact and fiction: Tamerlan Tsarnaev had an overweening sense of grievance. He decided to kill and maim innocents. And he dragged his little, more impressionable brother into the whole thing.

Now, that might change. It probably will change. It will become more nuanced, more complicated, as the hours and the days and the weeks pass.

If they were, as has been suggested, Chechens, they had a beef with the Russians, not us. They certainly didn’t have a beef with the people whose lives they ended, whose legs they blew off, last Monday on Patriots Day. But they have no right to attack Russians, either.

I was on an NPR show this morning, talking as I drove back from Cambridge to write this column, and a caller came on the air and started talking about how we’ve got to look in the mirror and ask what we as Americans have done to create angry young men like this.

I almost drove off the road.

No one who lost their life or their limbs on Boylston Street last Monday did anything to create angry young men like this. And I know that 8-year-old Martin Richard, a beautiful little boy from Dorchester who was killed by a bomb the authorities say the Tsarnaev brothers prepared and left near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, never hurt a soul. He was a kind little boy who was unfailingly nice to his classmate, the daughter of the Boston firefighter who knelt over his body.

Sean Collier, the 26-year-old MIT police officer who was shot to death Thursday night, was a wonderful young man. He worked as a civilian for the Somerville Police Department, but desperately wanted to be a cop. He was thrilled when he got the call to join the MIT force last year, and he was willing to put his life on the line for all of us, as he did late Thursday night when he responded to a call in Kendall Square and was, the police say, executed by the Tsarnaev brothers before he could even get out of his cruiser.

I am willing to bet my life on the certainty that Sean Collier would have laid down his life for anybody, including immigrants from Kyrgyzstan or Chechnya. In the end, he did lay down his life, trying to protect others.

I don’t want to listen to how innocent people bear some responsibility for creating the twisted minds of the Tsarnaev brothers, who emerged from the break up of a totalitarian form of government that collapsed under the weight of ordinary people wanting freedom.

The Tsarnaev brothers are responsible for twisting a great religion to foment hatred. They don’t speak for Muslims any more than I speak for overweight Irish-American guys who like to play hockey. It would be a horrific insult to their victims, and to the unimaginably brave first responders who ran toward the bombs last Monday, if there is a backlash against Muslims.

But, please, spare me the guilt.

At least let’s see how this ends. At least let us bury our dead first. At least let us heal our wounded. At least let us take care of our first responders. Then maybe I’ll listen to “what did we do to make them hate us” claptrap. Then maybe I’ll go to some soul-searching debate about how our foreign policy is screwed up and how we’re creating too many enemies and too few allies.

But then, maybe I won’t.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 20, 2013 @ 3:54 am

The April 19 edition of the Boston Globe has a profile of the Tsarnaev brothers.

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