At first, the Boston Marathon bombings seemed small to me. Compared to 9-11, to deaths in wars we don’t even bother to look at on television anymore, even to industrial murders resulting from deliberately unsafe management decisions — compared to all this, a lot of people went home in one piece. Had homes to go home to.
That night I went to hear Medea Benjamin speaking on the outrage of US drone policy. As a former political-military analyst of Pakistani affairs, back in another time and place, I actively despise the drones as bad policy. They are another Vietnam — which is to say, a bombing of innocent people who didn’t really care about us but wake up the next day full of hatred. On such occasions, my mind wanders idly to the question of whether our stated policy on use for drones would be different if another country — say, Russia — used the same words to justify attacks launched into US neighborhoods, in search of their own terrorists, say, Chechnyans separatists.
History teaches that the Russians have plenty of reason to use something as lethal as drones against Chechnyan separatists — even as the Chechnyan separatists have legitimate grievances against the Russians. It’s a civil war, fought out by other means, and sometimes in other places.
So, as I say, the Russians would have as much reason to launch a drone into Watertown or any other US neighborhood with a strong eastern European presence as we have to launch our drones into some of the Pakistani and Yemeni neighborhoods we attack. Signature attacks, after all, depend on nothing more than a belief that this is the kind of neighborhood where terrorism finds a foothold. Takes root. Organizes and then exports the means to attack innocents abroad. At this moment, I trust, there are legal scholars in the Pentagon and CIA poring over every word Obama has uttered on this subject, frantically seeking the ones that might be launched back into our own faces.
But drones are not only something to fear, they are also something to understand. The reason we use drones against suspected terrorists is because those malefactors inhabit places we mock as “failed states.” In explaining the appellation, experts do not deny that good people live there. States do not fail because they have no rich people. they do not lack for healthy religious communities, most of which are the single healthy social institution protecting their members. Failed states have arts and literature, museums and ways for people to trade and travel.
What failed states don’t have is a government with the power, the will, and the resources to control people who do not wish to live by the laws. Patriots Day was an ironic moment for God to show the full dimensions of how much that applies to us. Worried about personal violence: the US Senate voted to let gun owners be gun owners — no matter why they want those guns — and to have all the bullets and gunpowder they want. nervous about your jobsite and missing OSHA? An industrial chemical plant exploded next to two schools and a nursing home, all snuggled close to each other in a jurisdiction that has no safety standards nor routine surprise inspections. Or maybe you dread the ecological apocalypse? In that case, you’re agitated that flooding has shut down a major metropolitan area and raised fears that its failed sewage exclusion system has allowed an imported predator species of fish to enter the huge, interlocked Great Lakes water system.
And in Boston, on Patriots Day, two brothers and unknown others took the step that lead to official designation as a failed state: they planned, supplied, and launched an act of violence against a public event. It probably took someone from someplace like Chechnya to hold up the final mirror. Fugitives from failed states know immediately when they’ve landed in another one. Maybe now, when the Pakistanis, the Yemenis, the Afghans wail that the drones kill good people with the bad, the people of Watertown, Cambridge, and Arlington — many of whom are my personal dear friends — will lead American voices insisting we take them more seriously.
Wisdom is for another day. Right now, I’m still reeling from the numerous naked emperors running wild on my cable television: a town blown off the map in Texas, my own friends locked in their home, losing income and serenity in Greater Boston, and Asian jumping carp chomping their way into Lake Michigan from the DesPlaines and Chicago Rivers.
God has called our bluff. Pride goes before a fall. Monday night, I mused with disinterest how useful it would be for the Russians to launch a drone against the US, using our own legal language to justify a simply decision to protect their own people against terrorism. Today — Friday — I just pray they don’t.