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Stephen Gottlieb: Responding To Tragedy

Shortly after I walked out of the studio last week having recorded a piece on taxes, the news started to bristle with reports of the two bombs that exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Part of me wanted to rush back in and record something different. I’d lived a few blocks away, have many friends in Boston, shuddered for the people killed and injured, and shared the reaction that this looked like an attack on our country, on all of us. I was speechless.

To their credit, the NPR announcers kept saying they did not know who had done it or why and it was far too soon to draw any conclusions. Showing restraint amid tragedy, the President came to Boston and promised to find whoever did it and bring them to justice, but made no assumptions about who or why this had happened.

There’s a tendency in moments like that to go crazy, to shake one’s fist at the world, to utter threats of massive retribution. One can be overwhelmed by the need to fight – anyone! Early in 2003, in the words of John le Carré, the great British spy novelist, “Bush and his junta … deflect[ed] America’s anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein … [in] one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history.” The London Times carried le Carré’s article under the headline “The United States of America Has Gone Mad.” We needed to take our anger out on something. Unfortunately the White House picked the wrong target.

England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy have all faced their share of terrorism in the last several decades. From the civil war in Northern Ireland, al Qaeda, extremists of both the left and the right, nationalists from the Basques to Palestinians, and religious hate groups. I could go on. But my point is that we are not and will not be immune.

For two centuries we could imagine that the oceans on our coasts protected us from foreign wars except where we chose to fight abroad. But that is no longer the case. We can control drones from the relative safety of bases in the U.S. but we can’t unilaterally make them off-limits for retaliation. And responding to threats by means of massive retaliation risks widening the conflict to more people, countries, and avenues for attack on American soil.

After the Sarin gas attack on  a Tokyo subway in 1995, France developed national plans to deal with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events. A coordinated national plan in this country to deal with such events is barely more than a dream in the minds of Americans who specialize in those fields. We’d like to believe we won’t need to, but of course that kind of thinking only guarantees that the impact on us will be worse.

This kind of problem takes calm heads, clear, unemotional thinking, and a public that demands the wisest response, not the loudest message. Whether our actions abroad boomerang on American soil doesn’t just depend on whether they seem morally right to us. The world is a complex place. And if we would play on the world stage, we need to remember that foreign affairs is not a one person game.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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