We also need to let go of our culturally myopic assumption that dates are important to al Qaeda. As best we know, April 15 -- the date of the Boston Marathon -- holds no obvious meaning for al Qaeda. But that's evidence of nothing. Twelve anniversaries of 9/11 itself have come and gone without the expected al Qaeda sequel attack. (Although some are still debating whether the terrorist attack in Benghazi last year that killed our ambassador to Libya was related to the 9/11 anniversary, I come down firmly on the side that it was not; indeed, it's still an open question whether the Benghazi perpetrators had much at all to do with al Qaeda's North African affiliate, let alone its faraway core in Pakistan.) We've already passed one anniversary of the death of bin Laden -- and, again, no commemorative attack. Every date that was once believed to hold meaning for al Qaeda has come and gone without action. The most compelling argument to draw from all this is that al Qaeda attacks when it is good and ready, not on a predetermined schedule or on sentimental dates.
It may also be time to let go of the old assumption that al Qaeda attacks are characterized by a high degree of technical ability. Al Qaeda made clever strides to slip explosives past U.S. screening mechanisms, such as the 2009 underwear bomber; they developed their own recipes for explosives, like the liquid explosive that first appeared in 2006. But it may well also be true that the ready availability on the Internet of recipes, tactics, and devices has ushered in an era of more advanced "lone wolves" and domestic terrorists -- at just about the same moment that counterterrorism pressure on al Qaeda has sapped its capabilities. To be sure, al Qaeda still has the means to produce the tools of terrorism, but their operational ability has long been depleted.
As a former senior counterterrorism official, my mind rushes naturally to such considerations. But precisely because I'm now out of government, I have time -- without the old adrenaline and the old pressure -- to step back for a moment from the "whodunit" questions. And that drives me to something that may be both more simple and more true. The Boston bombings are a reminder that there are evil, violent people out there who are willing to murder an 8-year-old boy, maim innocent bystanders, and deliberately target ordinary citizens. I expect we'll know more soon about their motives -- but on some level, I'm not even sure I care that much. What's the difference if they ascribe this atrocity to a neo-Nazi, radical Islamist, or separatist anti-government ideology? Whatever their motive, they're cowardly murderers who need to be brought to justice.
The reflexive question -- "Was this terrorism?" -- shouted out so expectantly during the first press conferences after attacks on our fellow Americans, whether in Boston or Benghazi or elsewhere, reveals a certain cultural, even national, neurosis that we have about terrorism. Of course this is terrorism, even if it turns out to have lacked a familiar motive -- and I'm glad people acknowledged that immediately this time. But why should we care that much? Does it matter to the victims or their loved ones what warped ideology the perpetrators believed in? No. Will it make it any easier to stop the next attack? I doubt it, though motive certainly helps make solving attacks easier. Maybe next time, rather than indulging our appetite for gruesome details, uninformed and premature speculation, and round-the-clock coverage, we could all pause and try to deprive the perpetrators -- whoever they are -- of the thing they most crave: attention.
For the people in government charged with protecting the homeland against terrorist attacks, the job has never been more difficult. Defending against spectacular attacks like 9/11 is one thing, but the Boston attack demonstrates how our definition of terrorism has changed -- and how the job of defending ourselves has become all the harder.