Boston’s symbolic magnitude in the U.S.

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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During the first few hours following the Boston Marathon explosion, a lot of Americans, including President Barack Obama, were in a state of denial. In his first address on the explosion, Obama did not use the word “terrorism” as if he did not want to acknowledge that terrorism visited Boston, the mother of all American cities and the oldest of them.

Boston’s marathon is not purely a sporting event. It is also a social and cultural celebration which tens of countries participate in and which half a million people watch. Thousands of runners come to this city, which has some of the world’s most prominent universities. The revolution for independence erupted in Boston, highlighting its cultural significance. In the 19th century, Boston was America’s financial capital, and it was a liberal stronghold against slavery during the civil war. This is why terrorism at the Boston Marathon has symbolic weight, such an act targets regular citizens and deprives them of the right to keep up with their daily lives.

The September 11, 2001 attacks turned into a milestone in America’s collective memory. It is the day that segregates all that happened before from all that happened after. Ever since, the Americans have been living in two contradicting realities. The U.S. security system’s success in aborting terrorism operations pushed many Americans to act as if terrorism occurs in faraway continents and not in their country.

But Washington’s sniper, John Allen Mohamed, terrified us in 2002 when he turned the city into an arena to target innocents. When any citizen walks into a governmental institution and gets thoroughly searched or when a traveler takes off his shoes at the airport, he remembers that he is living in the era that followed September 11.

Terrorism, whether its source is local and represented by individuals or political groups that oppose federal authorities, or whether it is foreign, does not represent an existential threat to America. But it absolutely reveals its weaknesses and the limitations of its power. It is also capable of shaking its society and causing huge economic losses, as occured during the September 11 attacks, which paved the way for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Terrorism, whether its source is local and represented by individuals or political groups that oppose federal authorities, or whether it is foreign, does not represent an existential threat to America

Hisham Melhem

The fake sense of security, which Boston’s blasts shattered, reminded us that the open American government has a lot of enemies on the inside and outside. It also reminded us that America, with its military and economic power, along with its huge cultural influence, will continue to be an attractive target for extremists who are driven by destructive ideologies. Such ideologies were demonstrated by the Oklahoma City explosion, which was an act of vendetta against the federal government because it had besieged an extremist religious group in Texas in 1993. On the outside, America leads a fierce war against deadly groups, like al-Qaeda. The front extends from Somalia and Yemen to Afghanistan and Pakistan. For its part, al-Qaeda always tries to take these wars to American soil.

Whoever the perpetrator or perpetrators are, and despite the small number of victims, the attack on Boston has reminded the American citizen that his right to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness is still subject to intimidation.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on April 18, 2013.


Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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