A solitary runner heads down the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., in front of the Boston skyline, at dawn the morning after explosions killed three and injured more than 140 at the Boston Marathon, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (Charles Krupa/AP)

The last time I had to talk about terrorism and Boston was 9/11. There was no Facebook to help assure friends and colleagues, and I did not own a cell phone, let alone a smart phone. But the media called. The Al Qaeda operatives had boarded their planes at Boston Logan Airport, the airport I use more than 100 times a year.

As someone who studies international security, I was asked then about 9/11, and today I have been asked about the Boston Marathon. Some things seem quite familiar. Others are new. Still others are a puzzle. But there are also some fundamental truths.

Most of us will be tempted to treat each new fact as evidence for a particular conclusion. But there will be many facts, and different facts will point in different directions — all at the same time.

On both 9/11 and yesterday, some early reports turned out to be misleading or just plain wrong. An earlier report that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library was the site of an attack is a case in point. There was no attack at the library. It was, instead, an electrical fire. It was an honest mistake, and there is no avoiding those kinds of errors. The key here is not blame, but patience. In 48 hours, law enforcement and intelligence officials will have a wealth of information, and we will know a lot more about what took place.

That brings us to what is different. Today, investigators have access to data that, in some cases, did not even exist on 9/11. Cell phone tower transmission data, surveillance video, iPhone photos from a picture-taking crowd celebrating at the finish line. That, together with a scouring of telephone and email communications across the globe, will help rule out and rule in potential suspects.

And some things are a puzzle. For example, why did the bombs go off so long after the winners crossed the finish line? Is it a sign of incompetence, good defense by the government, or some unknown motive? Is the timing tied to Patriot’s Day or the U.S. tax deadline or both or neither? Is the perpetrator of foreign or domestic origin and motivation?

Here again, it’s best to be patient. Most of us will be tempted to treat each new fact as evidence for a particular conclusion. But there will be many facts, and different facts will point in different directions — all at the same time. Reports that there were multiple explosives set for near-simultaneous detonation might suggest organizational sophistication. Yet at the same time, the relatively low-grade of the reported explosive (non-military) and the late timing could suggest the opposite.

There are news reports that a foreign student is being interviewed by the police (traditionally, not a very strong indicator of anything at all) even as most experts (myself included) think that a decentralized Al Qaeda is more focused on regional goals in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere and not on the U.S. homeland.

So there is a lot we do not yet know at this moment.

More than a decade after 9/11, I am more impressed by American resilience and restraint than I am by the errors.

But there are other things we do know that are fundamentally more important. On 9/11, I stood before the camera and said with confidence that the country I knew would bounce back. That wasn’t schmaltzy faux patriotism. That was my honest assessment. I worried then that, if anything, we might over-react and reach too far. And we did, but more than a decade after 9/11, I am more impressed by American resilience and restraint than I am by the errors.

Today, in the place I have called home, there is no doubt in my mind where this goes from here. If you have lived in Boston, you probably already know this. If you haven’t, let me assure you, that you need not doubt the strength or spirit of this particular American city. It proved itself in an earlier time, a time it was commemorating yesterday, Patriots’ Day. And the video of people rushing in to help the injured speaks for itself, but it is bigger than even that.

Boston is not the biggest city in America; it is not the most politically powerful. But it has an inner determination and power that only the foolish ignore. Next year, at the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, I confidently predict there will be more runners and more supporters than ever before.

The attackers, whoever they are must be incompetent.

They picked on the wrong city.


Tags: Boston, Boston Marathon Bombings, Security

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  • Anne Hudson

    Thank you, Jim! I am really heartened by your faith in Boston.

  • Jennifer Grant

    I’ve never been there but now I do believe I will have to visit this amazing city. I want to see Boston spirit firsthand and I want Bostonians to know, we got your back.

  • Guy Testarossa

    This is a disturbing article. Even one injury from a terrorist attack is a tragedy. So far there are three dead, at least 150 injured, and you’re pulling the local pride act and feigning bravado. I can tell you right now, the victims and their families aren’t just shouldering their grief and pain and puffing their chests like you are. It can’t get anymore insensitive than this.

    • Leah Silver Graves

      I did not see it as “disturbing” in any way shape or form. As someone who is local to Boston I actually saw it as well written, touching, and brave. Perhaps you need to take a look in the mirror, Guy. Terrible that you could write such a cruel response to the author.

    • disembodiedprose

      Wow, were you pissed when people put out American flags after 9/11 too? Talk about misplaced anger.

      • Guy Testarossa

        Who said I was angry? I was just making a point. I don’t disagree with everything Mr. Walsh says in the entire article, but I think the tone of the article is inappropriate. “They picked on the wrong city.” That says it all. That implies there could have been a right city for an attack like this, and I dispute that notion.

        • disembodiedprose

          Maybe anger was not quite the correct phrase, but I don’t think the author was implying that other cities would’ve been “better” to attack. I’m trying to look at Boston objectively, as I am native to the area, but I do believe we have a stronger cohesive “spirit” than many other cities, and this is related to many things – our history, our sports, our culture, etc. That’s what the author is addressing, I believe – that we stick together and we bounce back.

    • Palm_Strikes_Forehead


      I understand your point about bravado, but given the low-rent, bush-league nature of this attack on such a happy event, perhaps the only effective way to counter such a display of cowardice is to mourn the dead, treat the wounded, and demonstrate to the bombers the futility of trying to spread fear amongst a city of such peaceful, hopeful, and yes, strong people.

  • delia

    i dont think the timing was a mistake–the bombs went off when the sox crowd would have joined the sidelines, and when the greatest volume of runners is coming through the finish line. they didnt care about the winners (which would imply some weird vendetta against athletes), they cared about high numbers, which is more in line with the goals of terrorism rather than assassination.

  • Julia B.

    The timing is not a mystery at all, and even the local TV stations got this right within an hour or two after the event. The busiest time at the finish line is about 2-3:30 pm, when thousands and thousands of runners cross the finish line together. Anyone who’s volunteered at the finish line can tell you how crazy that time period is; it’s a wall of runners coming through all at once.

  • CarlosMV

    The Krupa/AP feature photograph associated with this post is fake. The Boston skyline as shown can only be captured between the Mass. Ave. and Longfellow bridges. Thing is, there is a fence all along the river and this fence is nowhere to be seen in this photograph.

    • CarlosMV

      I withdraw this comment. My colleagues did some actual observations and concluded that it is possible to have this view. The curve of the river, particularly at such an early time of the day, obscures the Mass. Ave. bridge. My apologies.

  • SteveTheTeacher

    Mr. Walsh’s commentary is very disturbing.

    I was with my young children, very close to the site were the bombs went off. My first thoughts were relief that we were not injured then sorrow for the people killed, injured, and their families and friend.

    When I checked the news on the morning of the 15th, I remember reading about bomb attacks in Iraq which killed and injured scores of civilians and US military/NATO led attacks in Afghanistan which killed scores of civilians including 11 children.

    The attack left me with the same feeling that I had following the 9/11/01 attacks. Boston is unique, and Bostonians have their own character. But Baghdad and Kabul are also unique. My hope was then, and still is, that we realize that each human life, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, etc., is invaluable. We are all human, on one planet. We are family. It is unacceptable when any civilian anywhere is killed or injured whether at the hands of a few psychopaths or through the intentional or unintentional (collateral) acts of military forces.

    Defiance and bravado and presuppose a paradigm of US versus them and a sense of siege. My hope was/is that rather than defiance and bravado we build or bonds of community and love for all humanity, and that we resolve to support each other and work to end violence and injustice.

  • NJL

    What are you saying? That terrorists picked on the wrong city? Doesn’t that mean that there must be cities in America that are weak, that are afraid, that will give in to terrorists. That’s what you just said… If Boston is the “wrong city,” there must be some ‘right’ cities. I’m proud of Boston’s response, but it’s no different from any other American city, is it? It’s not special. In fact, didn’t Egyptians do the same thing last year when they were being shot and beaten by Mubarak’s police? Didn’t the Japanese people react the same way when the tidal waves flooded the cities and destroyed the nuclear plants? How about the people in West Texas? No offense, but there’s nothing special about Boston’s response… it’s no better than any other city, no matter how much locals claim they’re somehow better and different.

  • niccim

    Is there a right city to pick on?

    Why, Where and Why Not
    by Nicci Meadow

    “Not here in Boston. Not here in Boston.”

    declared the President of the United States.

    Why “not here in Boston?”

    Where if “not here in

    Why ask why?

    Ask why not?

    Why ask “why not?”

  • anne sweeney

    These were kids, basically. Can you imagine what would happen if we were up against some smart people ? I don’t, we’d still be in lock down, prisoners of our own city.