Tuesday 16 April 2013


Some 24 hours on from the deeply inhumane bombings in Boston, we seem to be no clearer as to the identity or the motivation of the perpetrators of this hideous crime. The U.S. authorities are still investigating and are remaining cautious in their statements. 

As so often happens after such events, while the facts are unknown, speculation begins to fill the airwaves and the internet. After the massacre in Norway, there was something of a rush to blame the killings on Muslim terrorists. After the massacre in Toulouse, there was something of a rush to blame the killings on right-wing extremists. 

Were the perpetrators of the marathon bombings domestic right-wing extremists, foreign jihadi extremists or something else altogether (whether left-wing or non-political)? We simply don't know and it would surely be much better if we all kept the speculation to a bear minimum - though that's hardly likely to happen in the age of the internet and 24 hour news. 

In amongst the moving testimony and the fine reporting of the BBC's Security Correspondent Gordon Corera, this morning's Today programme on Radio 4 - especially its presenters Justin Webb and Evan Davis - engaged in quite a good deal of speculation. Their speculation led them to favour the theory that domestic, right-wing extremists are the more likely perpetrators. Whether it turns out to be sound speculation only time will tell.

Given the anger the programme's coverage is generating at Biased BBC (see here, here, here and here), it might be helpful to transcribe representative parts of the programme. 

Please see what you make of it.

Evan Davis: President Obama speaking there. Not using the word 'terrorism' to describe the event. And some conversations in this news room and others around the place about 'Is this the biggest terror atrocity in the United States since 9/11?'  and some doubt over the use of these words or those comparisons, simply because there was the Fort Hood shootings some years back and the Americans have been very reluctant to classify that as a terror attack.

Justin Webb: It was interesting what Gordon Corera was saying ten minutes or so ago about that. And Fort Hood is a sort of classic case of where Americans have been dividing recently on the subject of terrorism. And it's..the Fort Hood case was a case of mass murder. There's no question about that. It took place in 2009. There is a man who has been arraigned and is the only suspect and is going to face a trial and possible eventual execution. And there's no doubt at all that 13 people died. But the issue is whether or not it was a terrorist attack, whether he had been in touch with al-Qaeda, whether he was motivated by Islamic extremism and the view of the federal government has been that that wasn't necessarily the case, that it was potentially just a case of mass murder. And it has very much invigorated those who wanted to accuse President Obama of not looking after America properly and has been to a kind of accusation that the federal government tends to cover up and avoid using the word 'terrorism' whenever it can and I think that that's one of the things..one of the political things that's going to inform quite a lot of the..or if 'inform' is quite the right word..but sort of effect quite a lot of the coverage in the United States over the next 24 hours or so.

Evan Davis: Before we go to sport, just some words on why people have been very quick to speculate about the significance of yesterday for those Boston explosions, the marathon explosions. It was Patriots' Day, which actually commemorates the opening battles of the American revolutionary war but perhaps more significant in the speculation is the fact that this week contains a number of unhappy anniversaries - the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco, Texas assaults, the Columbine school shooting and the Virginia Tech massacre. All took part this week, and two of those tragedies - the Virginia Tech massacre and the Waco assault - were, in fact, themselves on the Patriots' Day of those years. People are trying to draw all sorts of conclusions and significance. Whether that tilts you towards believing it was a domestic terror rather than imported in the States [sic], but the authorities remaining very cautious at this stage.

Justin Webb: We were discussing on the programme only yesterday how increasingly relaxed Americans were about the threat of an attack on their soil. So how's the nation going to react? In large part, of course, that is going to depend on who is responsible and that, as we've been saying in the programme repeatedly this morning, is not yet known.

Justin Webb (to P.J. Crowley,  former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State): But it's a fact, isn't it, that America's politics have been pretty poisonous in recent years and if this does turn out to be a domestically-inspired act of terrorism then it will lead to...I mean really every bit as much soul-searching...albeit in a different direction... as if it was something that was directed at the United States, if you like, ultimately from abroad.

Justin Webb (to P.J. Crowley): Final question about Barack Obama. He has a task now, hasn't he, as president? That traditional task of bringing the nation together. Given all the political heat that there is in the United States at the moment and the dislike of him, the extreme dislike of him, among some sections of the Republican Party, is he able, do you think, at this moment to bring the nation together? Can he perform that role?

Justin Webb: It is, of course, worth noting that the death toll in Boston was much less than that in bomb attacks in Iraq yesterday. There were doubtless children killed there too. But that doesn't reduce the horror for Boston or for America.

8.15 Evan Davis (to Rick Nelson, CSIS, Washington): It doesn't appear to have been suicide bombers. I wonder whether that, in some sense, would tilt you away from Islamist towards domestic terrorists of some kind?

8.15 Evan Davis (to Rick Nelson, CSIS, Washington): We know it was Patriots' Day and a holiday in Boston yesterday. How significant might that be do you think? Or is it just the day the Boston marathon is run and, so, if you want to create carnage at the marathon that's the day you do it?

8.18 Evan Davis (to Rick Nelson, CSIS, Washington): Everything you're saying just points to 'Keep calm. Take it slowly. Do it accurately. Don't jump to conclusions to quickly'.

8.19  Evan Davis (to Gordon Corera): Gordon, after all the words of Mr Nelson there, warning us to be cautious, not to jump to conclusions, looking at this it seems as though the evidence is tipping towards some kind of domestic terrorism rather than something more Middle Eastern-related. Just because of the day, the fact that it isn't suicide bombers. I don't know, is that the way you feel the security industry in the United States is heading in its mind?

Gordon Corera (to Evan Davis): I think they're still being very cautious here, I have to say. It's not just the White House, but a lot of other people are being cautious about that. There are certain indicators you could take to say and suggest that perhaps this is more domestic focused - as you say, Patriot Day, which is a day in Massachusetts which marks the start of the revolutionary war; Tax Day, when Americans have to file their taxes; some other anniversaries of other events in the past linked to domestic home-grown extremism. Certainly they have lead some people to suggest that this is more likely, that kind of attack. Others have then said though that attacking a marathon would be very unusual for such a group. They've tended to attack government targets (on the whole, not always), targets associated with the federal government. Attacking a group of civilians, of ordinary people like that, would be something more typical of a jihadist group. So I think you can see how there are arguments both ways which are making people cautious. So I think because of that there is a very clear focus on finding the evidence rather than speculating.
[Gordon Corera then mentions leads being investigated by the authorities - a "dark-skinned male"; people with backpacks; a student from Saudi Arabia - but continues advising caution].

Evan Davis (to Bill Bratton, former police chief in Boston, L.A. and New York): There's been tremendous maturity in terms of not trying to jump to conclusions and everyone's being incredibly cautious. I wonder whether people are being perhaps overly cautious on this occasion. I mean, the reluctance to use the word 'terror' for example, that what looks like...very obviously like a terror event.

Evan Davis (to Bill Bratton): In terms of looking at the clues, two bombs presumably make it unlikely it was just one lone individual acting purely off his own back, a kind of Unibomber-type character?

Bill Bratton: That would be very speculative at this time.

UPDATE 17/4: The tendency to view major events through the filters of your own biases (such as mine to view them through the filter of BBC bias), seems to be hard to resist. 

That interview between Justin Webb and P.J. Crowley (a Democrat), where Justin speculated that the extreme dislike for President Obama found in parts of the Republican Party might prove divisive in coming days, suggests a filter on the part of certain BBC reporters. I was struck by this late last night, given that The World Tonight's coverage of the Boston bombings also introduced and pursued that very angle - as you can see from presenter David Eades's introduction:
I'll ask a Republican senator if President Obama's critics can resist making political capital out of the bombing.
That was indeed the angle he pursued while interviewing Congressman Scott Perry, introducing the subject in the course of the discussion. Congressman Perry had been in no way critical of the president and remained supportive of the president's response, expressing (in response to David's questions) distaste for using events like this for political purposes. His entire contribution showed that using the event for political purposes had been very far from his mind and he hadn't been doing it - and yet David Eades still pursued the 'political capital' angle with him, using some comments by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell that the U.S. had allowed complacency about the threat of terrorism to creep in since 9/11 - which doesn't seem to me to be a party political point at all - as a pretext for this line of questioning. 

As a result the thought crossed my mind that it was David Eades, following in Justin Webb's wake, who was seeking to make political capital out of this. It seemed rather unnecessary. 

But, then again, I may have my own filters in action and could be doing to David and Justin what I'm now accusing them of doing. Which wouldn't necessarily make me wrong about this. You will have to make your own minds up (avoiding your own filters perhaps).

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