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Carter: Boston and the terrible theater of terrorism

Two police officers stand guard at the perimeter

Two police officers stand guard at the perimeter of a locked down area as a search for the second of two suspects wanted in the Boston Marathon bombings takes place in Watertown, Massachusetts. (April 19, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

The attack on the Boston Marathon is a reminder of the adage that terror is theater. Yes, terror is horror. Yes, terror is murder. Yes, terror is reprehensible. But it is theater, too, played out on a grand stage before an audience of tens of millions. We sit riveted in front of the television or computer screen, demanding the latest updates.

We don't need to know who did it to understand the malevolent brilliance of the staging: an attack on the audience at a sporting event where the crowd is uncontrollable. Suddenly everyone is worried about which "soft" target will be next. (In Israel, everyone understands that shopping malls and night clubs are natural attractions for terrorism.) The response to terror is also theater. This probably explains why so many observers criticized President Barack Obama when his initial statement, just hours after the attacks, omitted the word "terrorism." The president was displaying an understandable legalistic caution, but he missed the sense of occasion: Act 1, Scene 2, the leader of free world and the de facto commander in chief of the War on Terror takes the stage alone. His performance must be equal to the anxieties of his worried people. On Monday it wasn't; on Tuesday it was.

The notion that terror is theater was popularized by the British novelist John le Carre in his masterpiece "The Little Drummer Girl," published in 1983. Years later, le Carre traced the genesis of the phrase to a conversation with a "Palestinian firebrand" in Beirut: "He was talking about the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, but he might as well have been talking about the twin towers and the Pentagon. The late Michael Bakunin, evangelist of anarchism, liked to speak of the Propaganda of the Act. It's hard to imagine more theatrical, more potent acts of propaganda than these."

Thus terror is also theater because it is intended to send a message. Contrary to common understanding, the message isn't in the first instance political or ideological. It is psychological. Terrorism, writes Leo Braudy in his fascinating book "From Chivalry to Terrorism," is "primarily symbolic and propagandistic," signaling "that all the high technology in the world cannot stop a determined enemy, even one armed only with primitive weapons."

The Obama administration, like its predecessor, has tried to address the demand side of terror. The supply side is difficult to reach. There will always be disaffected fanatics, at home and abroad, willing to give their lives for a moment of murderous theater. The U.S. response has therefore been to attack the logistics, the networks and the leaders who plan and carry out attacks.

This approach doesn't make terror impossible or even less likely; it does make terror smaller. To put the matter starkly, there is a world of difference between blowing up two pressure- cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon and crashing a plane into a city. The first can be accomplished by the lone wolf, difficult to prevent entirely in a free society. The second is what U.S. policy means to eliminate.

Nobody in authority can say this explicitly. But no serious follower of national security debates doubts that the choice has been made. We are trying to deny to the terror actor the larger stage.

The United States still presumes a right to be free from the attacks and disasters that plague the rest of the world. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has taken some hits for suggesting that we return as quickly as possible to business as usual after the Boston Marathon attack, but I think he has been misunderstood. His point is about theater: He is counseling that we follow the Israelis in treating terror as happening on the small stage rather than the large.

This advice poses a considerable challenge. When attacked, we want not simply justice but revenge. In this sense much of the drama of terrorism and response had become highly stylized. This isn't the 1960s, the era of hand-wringing and excuses. If you blow up, by design, innocent civilians, no one will ask why or be interested in your cause. The conversation will be about bringing justice to the enemy. And if you invent an ideology in which nobody is innocent, the West will turn against you in fury, and make no protest as American drones rain missiles upon wherever the president of the United States thinks you might possibly be hiding.

Experts say that for the committed terrorist, killing itself becomes a way of life, surpassing even the political or religious claim that might have once provided the motivation. The U.S. government has plainly come to agree with Michael Ignatieff's contention that when this point is reached, "the only rational response ... must be to eliminate the enemy one by one." This is why it matters whether one believes that the West is engaged in a War on Terror. Many thoughtful people deny that such a conception makes sense, because terror is a tactic not an entity. But the notion of a War on Terror makes perfect sense within the conventions of drama. If terror is theater, then so is the War on Terror.

And the performance matters. In le Carre's novel, the Israeli spymaster Kurtz warns his agent, the British actress Charlie, about the differences between stage and reality, and he might as well be speaking of Boston: "When the actors laugh they will be happy, and when they weep they will very likely be bereaved and broken-hearted. And if they get hurt -- and they will, Charlie -- they will surely not be in a position, when the curtain falls, to jump up and run for the last bus home."

Terror may be theater, but it matters a great deal who gives the better performance.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.