In 2013, a terrorist attack is less a test of American mettle than American manners. Forks on your left, knives on your right, sane questions folded up and tucked discretely into breast pocket. Whatever you do, do not politicize (take seriously) the attack. And you must be open-minded (make sure to politicize).
Public speculation should only be of a self-demonizing nature. "I would caution folks jumping to conclusions about foreign terrorism," wrote Esquire's Charles Pierce hours after Monday's deadly explosions in Boston, "to remember that this is the official Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts, celebrating the Battles at Lexington and Concord, and that the actual date (April 19) was of some significance to, among other people, Tim McVeigh, because he fancied himself a waterer of the tree of liberty and the like."
Thanks for the "caution."
So maybe it's knives on the left. The New York Times's Nick Kristof weighed in with a post-bomb tweet: "explosion is a reminder that ATF needs a director. Shame on Senate Republicans for blocking apptment." By the time he apologized the matter of how we talk about being maimed and killed had become a spectacle apart from the maiming and killing itself. And the spectacle was sad.
It used to be that when one news source had a hot story no one else was running it was called a scoop. Today it's called "criminal." TheNew York Post committed a terrible faux pas when it broke the news on Monday that authorities were looking into a "Saudi national" as a potential suspect. People weren't done speculating about Tim McVeigh and the GOP. Presumably NBC and CBS understood that Americans needed time to be "open-minded," so they didn't report the same story until an hour or so later. By then the Post had already taken the hit for ruining the mood.
Hours after that Barack Obama said a few words about the bombing. His sticking to the literal truth—that we didn't (and don't) know who was responsible—was one thing. But he spoke like an industrial CEO who'd been coached by lawyers after an on-site accident. Obama dished out the rhetoric of "mobilizing resources" and left it to a White House official, "who spoke on the condition of anonymity," to leak to the country that we had just suffered a terrorist attack. No well-mannered individual would be caught dead speaking of terrorism in the wake of terrorism.
Like all systems of manners, terrorist-attack etiquette isn't a display of genuine sympathy or respect, but an acceptable front behind which all sorts of emotions fight it out. So Salon's David Sirota can at least be commended for dropping the wait-and-see pose. "Let's hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American," he wrote on Wednesday. Sirota fears that because of "white privilege," a non-white terrorist could lead to new policies he, Sirota, doesn't like. "[N]on-white or developing-world terrorism suspects are often reflexively portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats — the kind potentially requiring everything from law enforcement action to military operations to civil liberties legislation to foreign policy shifts." He then goes on at confusing length about what "white-privilege is" and what "white-privilege means."
But Sirota demonstrates that white privilege means artfully tossing around the term "white privilege" without being the victim of non-white disadvantage. White-privilege is dismissing the thousands upon thousands of non-whites who know first-hand that Islamist terrorism is a systematic threat. White privilege, of the Sirota variety, means having the good fortune to choose which global scourges you can bear to fight and which you can dismiss as too costly. Above all, white privilege means pondering aloud the characteristics of your dream bomb-suspect, one who might help advance your political agenda (whether it be defense spending or defense cuts).
There is a good reason, alas, to hope that Islamist terrorists are not behind the Boston bombing. If such networks are once again committing successful attacks on the United States, we've been targeted at a moment of depressing cultural cowardice. It would mean that terrorists are killing us while we don't dare even speak of the possibility. Yes, let's hope it's a lone wolf.