Will the Boston bombings resurrect America's 'War on Terror'?

Political commentators on both sides are focusing on Islam, terrorism, and the limits of U.S. power. Sound familiar?

President Bush's 'War on Terror' may be finding new traction.
(Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead. Dzhokhar, his 19-year-old brother, has a throat wound and is in serious condition at a Boston hospital. Neither of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings ever publicly said why he might have wanted to set off explosives that killed three people and injured more than 170 others.

But we do know this: The Tsarnaev brothers are Muslims — and that Russia asked the FBI to look into whether Tamerlan had become a follower of radical Islam. And those facts have been enough to revive speculation over whether the White House is being tough enough on Islamic terrorists.

Former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey complains in The Wall Street Journal about President Obama being too cautious to state what Mukasey finds obvious. He writes: "There is … cause for concern in the president's reluctance, soon after the Boston bombing, even to use the "t" word — terrorism — and in his vague musing on Friday about some unspecified agenda of the perpetrators, when by then there was no mystery: The agenda was jihad."

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The editors of the National Review are similarly disappointed in what they see as pussyfooting around the issue of terrorism:

Simply put, every jihad is a threat to the United States, regardless of the particulars of its origin. That this jihad found instruments that were not as disciplined or creative as al Qaeda or the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — there is a whiff of Klebold and Harris about the Tsarnaev brothers — is no reason to take it less seriously. If anything, the mutation of the terrorist threat from a handful of centralized radical organizations into a motley collection of militants and misfits with varying degrees of ability and sophistication means that we must be more vigilant...

But at the same time, [Obama] remains a victim of, if we may borrow a phrase from Andrew C. McCarthy, willful blindness on the nature of Islamic supremacists. The attack on soldiers at Fort Hood remains risibly classified as an incidence of "workplace violence" rather than a sneak attack from the Islamic radical Nidal Hassan. When it comes to articulating a national understanding of the threat of Islamic radicalism and a national response to it, Barack Obama is a good deal less articulate than George W. Bush. [National Review]

In this view, as Fox News' Chris Wallace told Politico, "the 'War on Terror' is not over."

Ed Kilgore of the Washington Monthly has another term for it: "A grand revival of the post-9/11 politics of fear."

These are not just rhetorical games. There are real consequences to the narrative that emerges in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. Before the White House announced that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be tried as a civilian in federal court, several senators were pushing for him to be designated as an enemy combatant to be tried by a military commission. Labels matter.

That's why we should be cautious about any hawkishness that emerges from this tragedy, says The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf. Such posturing could lead us to the same place that we went after 9/11 — namely, Iraq. "In the wake of the Boston Marathon, the War on Terror hawks are speaking out with characteristic bluster," Friedersdorf writes. "Conservatives won't succeed in offering America anything better until the geopolitical thinkers who got so much wrong during the Bush years learn some humility — or are no longer treated, within their movement, as 'experts' who never got huge questions wrong."

The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky sees the "War on Terror" talk as both calculated and dangerous:

And with regard to terrorism, they need people to live in fear of the next attack, because fear makes people think about death, and thinking about death makes people more likely to endorse tough-guy, law-and-order, Constitution-shredding actions undertaken on their behalf. This is how we lived under Bush and Cheney for years. This fear is basically what enabled the Iraq War to take place. Public opinion didn’t support that war at first. But once they got the public afraid with all that false talk of mushroom clouds, the needle zoomed past 50 percent, and it was bombs away. [The Daily Beast]

Clearly, America is going to once again be talking about Islam, terrorism, and what we're willing to do to to prevent violent attacks on U.S. soil. It's fitting that the George W. Bush presidential library is opening this week because, at least judging from the commentariat, it's starting to look a little bit like the fall of 2001.

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