The tragic events that started with the bombing of the Boston Marathon thankfully came to an end a few hours ago. Currently people are celebrating on the streets in relief and they are cheering law enforcement personnel. Events like this week’s bombings bring citizens together in a rally-round-the-flag phenomenon. However, patriotism and xenophobia are two different concepts: let us hope that the emotional shock will translate into a positive in-group feeling without anger being directed at any out-group (see social identity theory for a pessimistic view…).
There are a few questions to ponder. Was the city-wide lockdown for a whole day the good strategy? First of all, hindsight is of course always 20-20. Nevertheless, Stephen Walt rightly argues that the bigger the disruption by a lone bomber, the more likely deranged attention-seekers will try to imitate them. But I am afraid that what could be termed ‘overreaction’ is politically very rational. As we saw in the Bueno de Mesquita article, in equilibrium, observable counter-terror spending will be inefficiently high, while unobservable spending inefficiently low, since voters cannot base their voting decision on the success of a government foiling plots unobservably. And what counter-terror measures would be more observable than the manhunt we saw today? Therefore, there seems to be a deep political incentive to respond in force, and unfortunately it seems wishful thinking that these incentives could be changed.
Another thought that I have had is how much personal connection to an event matters. All the locations involved in this tragedy had a personal meaning to me: my friend ran the Marathon, I was cheering him on a few miles from the finish line, one of the bombers went to a school I pass by every week, they carjacked a car on Memorial Driveway where I run every day, many of my friends were almost neighbors to the bombers, I can see Watertown from the top floor of my building. All this glued my mind to the events consciously as well as subconsciously. You might not find this very surprising, but I think it actually is. Consider what psycholigists call selective attention. Our mind gets so much information every second that it needs to be very selective about what it tunes in to. Could we subconsciously put too much emphasis on events that hit close to home? It is interesting to think about 9-11 in these terms, or how rivalries between countries seem to endure (two countries fighting each other seem much more likely to fight again). Maybe the path of our experiences has an even deeper impact than we realize.