US politicians show restraint after Boston attack | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 19.04.2013
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US politicians show restraint after Boston attack

As the investigations into the Boston bombings gather pace, America's deeply divided political class has refrained from trying to score partisan points. That may change, but so far the discourse has been civil.

Unlike the media, which whipped itself into a feeding frenzy reporting thinly sourced half-truths which had to be retracted later, America's political leadership has managed to pull off what it usually can not. It largely kept its mouths shut and refrained from pointing fingers. Instead it let law enforcement officials and investigators do their work.

While it is said that in times of national tragedy Americans cease to be Democrats or Republicans, that is often more wishful thinking than reality. What's more, the rare sentiment to stay away from microphones and refrain from playing the political blame game often does not last more than a day. Just remember that after the deadly attack on the US Consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi last September, the Romney campaign did not even wait one day to try to tie the incident to Obama's alleged failed Middle East policy.

Washington in sync on Boston attacks

So it is noteworthy that after the deadly double-bombing in Boston, Washington's political elite so far has acted pretty much in unison. Republican House Majority leader John Boehner spoke with President Obama after the attack. Details of their conversation were not provided, but both leaders struck a similar tone in their public remarks. Obama and Boehner separately called the bombings a terrorist attack and vowed not to speculate about it until more information was available.

Boehner said he didn't think Congress needed to take any swift legislative action. Instead the top Republican leader assured the public that "I think our law enforcement officials both at the federal level and the local level are going to have all the resources they need, and all the technology and tools they need to get to the bottom of it."

"I think it has been a responsible discussion so far," notes James Davis, director of the political science at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. "Both sides of the political spectrum have been careful about what they said and careful to wait for the results of the criminal investigation."

Still, he insists that after an incident like that a serious analysis is called for. This debate - about possible lapses of security that could have prevented the attack is sure to come - and is necessary in order to learn from the tragedy. But how that debate will be framed, depends to a large extent on the outcome of the investigation, argues Davis.

Outcome frames the debate

"I think if it's a home-grown organization the discussion will be very different from the discussion that we will have if this was a foreign group that carried out these bombings on American territory."

Police officers walk on Boylston Street (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The outcome of the investigations will frame the political debate in Washington

If the Boston bombings were the act of domestic terrorists, the focus of the debate will mostly likely be on how law enforcement can better monitor radical groups or individuals in the US, adds Davis. Should the attacks, however, be traced back to Islamist terrorists it would trigger a much broader and much more heated political debate.

After all, Republicans - just like Mitt Romney did in response to the Benghazi attack - have accused President Obama since taking office of underestimating the dangers of Islamist terrorism. Should Islamist terrorists be responsible for the first successful attack on American soil after 9/11, the political fallout in Washington would be substantial. "Republicans would have a field day charging the Obama administration with weakness," says Davis.

An attack by Islamist terrorists in the US would also have international implications as the debate about whether the total withdrawal of American troops and the planned end of the US military engagement in Afghanistan would likely be reopened. Some political hardliners, says Davis, might even bring up George W. Bush's preemptive strike strategy again, to go after terrorists abroad before the strike at home.

No threat for civil liberties

Civil liberties, which many experts claim have been severely curtailed by anti-terrorism laws since 9/11, are unlikely to be further weakened by the Boston bombings regardless of who committed the act.

"There are lots of checks and balances including the media and the Internet and a certain US fatigue with increased security and even more awareness of the costs and mounting evidence that funds might be better spent in other ways, particularly during a time of economic crisis," says Gary Marx, professor emeritus of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ferdinand Braudel Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.

His colleague Davis adds that many Americans now feel the US has overreacted with some of the national security measures implemented after 9/11 and are weary of further encroachments on civil liberties: "We saw the results for that approach to governance in places like the former German Democratic Republic where everybody was watching everybody. That's not a route we can take."

Shifting stance

U.S. President Barack Obama talks about the bomb blast at the finish line of the Boston Marathon while in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, April 15, 2013. Two explosions hit the Boston Marathon as runners crossed the finish line on Monday, killing at least two people and injuring 23 on a day when tens of thousands of people pack the streets to watch one of the world's best known marathons. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST DISASTER) / Eingestellt von wa

The Republicans have so far refrained from attacking Obama

Even within the conservative movement, which usually claims the mantle of the best protector of the nation's security, there are internal shifts away from a sole focus on anti-terrorism measures at the expense of civil liberties.

"What is as interesting now are the divides within the parties, particularly the Republicans, with greater attention and some increase in power for Libertarians," says Marx.

Given the general trepidation about increasing surveillance and security measures, the experts feel confident that a further erosion of civil liberties is unlikely regardless of the outcome of the criminal investigation.

However, they can't predict how much longer Washington's self-imposed political time-out of the blame game will hold as more details about the Boston bombings emerge. A vigorous discussion about whether anything reasonable could have been done to prevent the attack is coming. The nature and style of that debate will depend on the outcome of the investigation and the tone struck by the political leadership in Washington.

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