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Boston Consequences

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
April 24, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo


Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

Last week was one of the worst in recent memory here in the United States. Bombs made from kitchen appliances and stuff anyone can buy at a hardware store killed three and wounded one hundred eighty at the Boston Marathon. Before the final twenty-four-hour shoot-out, search and arrest of the remaining Tsarnaev brother, the U.S. Senate defeated very modest legislation to require background checks and a few other common sense gun control measures. And then a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, killing fourteen and wounding two hundred.

At the end of the week an exhausted, sad, and angry President Obama addressed the country once police caught the younger Tsarnaev. Before the news network switched from Watertown to the White House, the anchor made a reference to the likely increase in public safety measures for the sake of national security. A Brazilian friend visiting Washington was over at the house and watched with us. He grew up under the dictatorship, when the military invoked the threat of terrorism to justify repression, torture, and disappearance. Listening to the coverage he turned to me and said "whenever I hear the phrase 'national security' I am transported back to a very dark time in Brazil."

The United States is a democracy, not a military regime. We torture enemy combatants, not American citizens. The Obama administration has continued that practice, only now you don't have to kill civilians at a large sporting event to risk treatment that is considered torture under international law. Some migrants without papers who find themselves caught in the detention system here, though not water-boarded, are kept in solitary confinement for weeks and even months on end.

Since 9/11, Americans have given up considerable privacy for the sake of security. Between video footage from seemingly ubiquitous public cameras and the tsunami of smartphone images, the realm of the truly private has shrunk. To our benefit, the crowdsourcing helped identify the brothers Tsarnaev. And the city of Boston had recently undertaken a first-responders exercise to help prepare for a major security breech, so the police, FBI, fire department, and other state, local and federal agencies knew how to work together, and it showed.

But the brothers Tsarnaev also had a stockpile of guns and ammo they easily acquired because of lax American gun laws. Surely the sick irony isn't lost on even the most cynical gun industry (read NRA) lobbyist: blocking background checks and other gun control measures means making life, I mean death, all the easier for the next domestic terrorist.

And then there's immigration. The Republican Party's future political relevance depends in large measure upon Hispanic votes; the reason a bipartisan coalition is debating immigration reform for the first time in 25 years. But some Republicans are using the Boston tragedy to slow the process. These are the immediate consequences of the Boston Marathon attacks. In the longer term, there is reason to think American voters will moderate the extremism.

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