Why attack a marathon?

Terrorists use pluralism and freedom in order to crush pluralism and freedom. Yesterday’s attack will be debated over the coming days but there is little escaping this conclusion

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Three people are reported to have died in yesterday's brutal attack
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Melissa S. Gresham
On 16 April 2013 07:56

Crossing the finish line after running a marathon is a rewarding feeling.  When you see the end and hear the crowd cheering, you get one final burst of energy to obtain your medal. The crowd at the finish line is full of friends, family, and children waiting for and supporting their loved ones to achieve their goal.

This may seem like the last place anyone would expect a terrorist attack. There is no political gain, no religious meaning, and no ideological reasoning to attack the finish line of a marathon. You might, sadly, expect a school full of children like at Beslan in Russia, or a crowded stadium packed with tens of thousands of fans, but then accessibility and complacency is all a terrorist group needs to accomplish its goal.

Common tactics of terrorists include suicide bombings, small-arms attacks, kidnappings, and hijackings. Well-planned bombings of an advanced group include simultaneous explosives packed with shrapnel designed to inflict maximum casualties and psychological damage. When the first bomb explodes, people scatter, and another bomb is strategically placed where they might gather to escape the first explosion. This will ensure a high number of casualties and maximum fear.

The terrorist group or actor involved in yesterday’s horrific attack picked the Boston Marathon, in which 27,000 runners participated. And when you think about it, if inflicting evil is your motivation, the finish line is an ‘ideal’ place to ensure a large gathering of bystanders.

Other than creating fear, there are three additional reasons for attacking a marathon: disrupt normal routine, provoke the state to overact, and gain media attention and publicity.

Any terrorist attack will disrupt the normal routine of the affected people, but this attack especially so. It is not usually until after the event that security tightens, but terrorist know this which is why they constantly change their targets. It is unavoidable that marathons in the near future will be disrupted from their normal operations. As will life in Boston.

America has a strong military and government, so mounting a conventional attack is off the cards for most adversaries. This is why guerrilla or terrorist tactics are employed. This group or individual is seeking to provoke a response that would be detrimental to international interests. If they achieve this goal, new recruits will likely join their cause.

Terrorists need the media, it is their oxygen, and the media always responds to terrorist attacks. This attention allows the world to see their work and promotes their cause. Indeed, one measure of ‘success’ is based on how much coverage they receive. The media allows them to spread their message en masse and Brigette L. Nacos, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, is right when she says, “Without massive news coverage the terrorist act would resemble the proverbial tree falling in the forest”.

Benjamin Netanyahu defines terrorists as “undemocratic to the core”, remarking that they make “use of the pluralism and freedom guaranteed by liberal societies in order to crush this very pluralism and freedom.” The motivations of yesterday’s attack will be debated over the coming days, but, unfortunately, there seems to be little escaping this conclusion.

Melissa S. Gresham is an Adjunct Instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former helicopter pilot with the U.S. Army. She is completing her Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration with a specialization in Terrorism, Mediation, and Peace. Follow her on twitter@melissa_gresham

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