Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Can the smoke tell us about the perp?

A friend to this blog -- call him D -- sent me an intriguing letter outlining his theories as to how the small amount of evidence the public has may give us some clue as to the perpetrator of the Boston bomb attack. I'm not sure I agree with his conclusions, but the argument itself is quite intriguing.

All of the words below the asterisks were written by D. I may pop back at the end for a few concluding thoughts.

* * *

What evil lurks in the hearts of men? Way too easily we forget. Like many, I’m in no rush to be fully reminded. I know enough to know it’s more horrible than I care to know. And yet I can’t deny that a naïve, foolhardy piece of me is dying of curiosity to be completely filled in. Fortunately my more sober, reflective and empathetic side wants no part of such nightmares and gives thanks that, if nothing else, I can at least take comfort in the absolute certainty that I won’t be forced to live amongst these monsters ad infinitum.

Anyway, a few thoughts on Monday’s atrocity.

First and most obvious, the Boston Marathon is not what I would describe as a conservative event. A NASCAR race is. So too The Kentucky Derby, though considerably more upscale. But contemporary marathon foot-races, starting from the time of the mid-seventies, when the jogging craze took off, have always been associated with more liberal, progressive sensibilities. Plaid jacket red-necks, religious fundamentalists, Tea-Party reactionaries, and angry white-supremacist militia types are not the stereotypical attendees. So while it’s hardly unthinkable, it seems to me rather unlikely that a left-of-center militant would choose to bomb such an event, while a right-wing militant probably would be perfectly OK with it. All in all, not a terribly brilliant observation on my part I grant you. On the other hand, history is replete with diabolical deceptions like the Reichstag Fire. So who knows?

But it’s also entirely possible that no strong ideological element is involved with this vicious crime and that it is simply the work of a disturbed mind à la Charles Whitman or Adam Lanza. Frankly, my gut feeling is that the perpetrator is probably more in the vein of a Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph type. Meaning that there’s likely some sort of right-wing political weltanschauung involved, however jumbled and confused it may sound when voiced.

News reports are now saying that black-powder, sealed-up inside common pressure-cookers, was the explosive used to make both bombs. I had already kind of assumed early on that it was probably BP, based on what seemed like the comparatively low strength of the explosions, the need for the inclusion of homemade shrapnel, and most telling of all, the large billowing clouds of dense gray smoke. Not to minimize the untold suffering these infernal devices inflicted, but black-powder is pretty archaic stuff. It really hasn’t any modern applications, except by aficionados of muzzle loading firearms. Mention BP and I automatically associate it with rock-ribbed conservative gun enthusiasts who like to shoot these absolutely marvelous museum quality reproductions of muzzle loading flintlock pistols and rifles.

Of course muzzle loading guns are of interest to people from all across the political spectrum, but BP shooting is an especially big thing with a certain strain of the right, particularly those who are also attracted to the idiosyncratic and fascinating world of Historical Reenactment. Typically these are the same fellows who hold a passionate reverence for the Gadsden Flag, and the Confederate Stars and Bars. Such sympathies often are accompanied by a strong attachment to quixotic yearnings for “lost cause” theories and simpler times, when a frontiersman, alone in a lawless wilderness, had to be prepared if forced, often with only a moment’s notice, to function as judge jury and executioner. Now don’t get me wrong, shooting muzzle loading guns is a truly a wonderful hobby, enjoyed by tens of thousands of normal everyday folks. But In my experience, among muzzle loading devotees, there is a definite strain of people whose minds are feverishly preoccupied with survivalist doomsday scenarios. Things like the belief that an apocalyptic takeover of the United States by the U.N. is just around the corner and anybody with an ounce of fighting spirit and a lick of common sense is preparing now for when the SHTF. You know, sort of a dangerously pugnacious version of James Thurber’s lovably deluded “Get-ready man.”

You might be surprised to learn, there actually are explosives significantly more powerful than BP, that are readily available for sale to the general public. You could run out and buy some right now.. Tannerite is the main one that comes to mind. It is available in many gun shops and sporting goods store and can also be easily purchased mail-order. Depending on the local, no special permits or licensing is required. Thank God those bombs were made with BP and not Tannerite! However, Tannerite is considerably more difficult to detonate than BP. BP touches of quite easily. Given the special challenges of dependably detonating many modern-day explosives, it’s not hard to understand why a smalltime crank, working by himself, without the benefit of criminal connections, money and the technical support needed to build a compact but really devastating bomb, would go with the convenience of old-fashioned BP. Correspondingly, my expectation is that a real 24/7 political terrorist, by which I mean a determined career fanatic who belongs to and is being underwritten by an established terrorist organization, wouldn’t be caught dead putzing around with Mickey Mouse stuff like BP, but would insist on using a formidable military grade explosive like C-4 ,Semtex or at least TNT (at which point gimmicks like crockpots and homemade shrapnel become superfluous). Pound for pound, these kinds of modern explosives have a huge kill radius and are tremendously more destructive than the outmoded, and comparatively weak BP. They’re also a lot safer to work with than BP.

The makeshift, gerry-rigged use of pressure-cookers to confine and thereby amplify the force of the blast, as well as the inclusion of ball-bearings and framing-nails to maximize wounds, suggests to me a more amateurish, isolated, embittered personality, who is taxing the limits of his ingenuity and meager technical and financial resources, in order to cook up an improvised engine of mayhem. As opposed to a devout stone-cold terrorist operative, whose efforts are funded by the “home-office”, who has the cash to buy black-market military grade explosives and detonators and who is acting under orders from his superiors to inflict maximum damage.

So when I add it all up, what I get is a disgruntled ultra-conservative loner, who is an ardent follower of the mongrel dogs of rightwing radio and despises evil panty-waist liberals who are destroying America’s heart and soul with integration, welfare handouts, same-sex marriage, abortion and the Oprah Winfrey Network etc, etc. It’s possible he may also turn out to have loose affiliations with a neo-Fascist or white-supremacist organization.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi!

* * *

Cannon again.  The first thought that occurs to me is one that has no doubt popped into your own noggin: If, as D suggests, the perpetrator belongs to the fascist right, then a terrorist outrage of this sort seems rather otiose. Bombs can only increase hatred of the bomber's cause.

This rule has one great exception: If the explosives do serious damage to important targets -- damage on the scale of shock and awe -- the attacker might be able to cripple his enemy instead of simply making him angry. The 9/11 attacks tried to inflict that kind of wound. The targets went right to the heart of America's military and economic infrastructure -- the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. An extended series of similar attacks might have dealt this country an unrecoverable blow.

But setting off two somewhat amateurish bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon cannot give any practical aid to any political cause, whether that cause be right, left, or off-the-map.

An attack like this can have a political impact only if the attacker has also come up with a scheme to plant evidence pointing to a "false sponsor." In the post-9/11 era, an act of terrorism may best succeed if the intent is to frame someone else. While we have yet to see a Marinus Van der Lubbe enter this drama, the show is far from over.

Some of you may recall that the Manson Family tried to plant evidence which would lead the cops to pin the Tate/LaBianca killings on black nationalists. Others may be familiar with General Frank Kitson and his theory of the pseudo-gang.

Of course, the "false sponsor" hypothesis presumes that the bomb-makers (presuming there are more than one) are rational actors. And we really can't make that presumption, can we? The examples of Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris all tell us that madmen perform mad acts for mad reasons.

Then again, then again...

We do have the haunting case of Tim McVeigh. Unquestionably, his motives were political. And while his act was insane, I don't feel comfortable labeling McVeigh a psychopath in the sense that we might apply that word to Adam Lanza or Seung-Hui Cho.

Something similar could be said of Anders Brevik, the Norwegian mass murderer. Brevik is crazy, no doubt about it. But I don't think that he's nuts in the same way Harris and Klebold were nuts.  Brevik's violence had a political purpose; for Harris and Klebold, violence was an end unto itself.

So, yeah, it's possible that the person behind the new Boston massacre might be a political actor -- a jihadi, a gun nut, a birther -- operating in McVeigh Mode. But if so, he'd have to be really, really, really stupid. It's not as though Anders Brevik gave the Norwegian right good publicity.
Consider the logistics. It would be difficult for one man carrying two big backpacks to set one down and walk away and then set another one down. And somebody might take his picture if he did, and dial 911 and follow him. So there need to be two perps, or the single perp has to have a hiding place for the bombs very close to where they were deployed. Parking was doubtless a challenge at the end of the course, so he'd have to park a car well in advance. Or maybe he has access to an apartment or a store nearby.

As to political effect, I consider the resonance with 2001-2002. Then we had weapons-grade anthrax, now we have Ricin and black powder. Then we had kwazy Muslims wanting to saw our heads off. Now is it teapartiers wanting to blow our legs off?

Our fear then was used to launch a drone war overseas that now has reached Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Uganda--and who knows where else.

If the purpose now is to create fear among liberals of those kwazy survivalists, maybe it's to create an environment of tolerance for surveillance drones across the length and breadth of the land so the liberals can feel that close tabs are being kept on those guys who spend so much time in the woods.

Breivik killed a lot of the putative future leaders of Norway's leftist party. The right wing got embarrassed, the left got slaughtered. He might well have helped his long-term goals. OR not.

I try never to underestimate the supidity of terrorists. I was impressed by 9/11, it was very cinematic, like every Hollywood disaster movie it had to happen in New York. But obviously anything short of a nuclear bomb was only going to make America more aggressive. Whether that was the idea, and whose idea, is a matter of debate.

Other terrorist attacks, though, are generally unimpressive. This has normally been the case, only culminating with the modern trend for bombers who intentionally blow themselves up. I just can't help thinking "Is that it?".
Excellent points, anonymous. And before we try to write a nice neat scenario to explain the tragic events in Boston, let's look at more complexities. Sorry I can't provide a link, but there are photos on the internet of two young caucasian males in the Boston crowd wearing hats with the logo of Craft International, a "security" company founded by the ex-seal who was murdered a few weeks ago in a bizarre incident at a shooting range. What are professional mercenaries doing standing in a crowd in the area where the bombs went off shortly thereafter?

There are also photos of two slender, dark-skinned young men who obviously ain't from around here. Are they Middle Eastern? If so, from where? Or maybe they are just Puerto Ricans visiting from Pittsfield. As anonymous mentioned, this was the work of at least two and perhaps a team. Now the president is going to Boston for some photo ops and to make it look like he is concerned for the victims, although he causes worse carnage than this every week in other parts of the world, and no one in the US seems to be particularly concerned about it. I guess it's all relative.
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