Following the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks that killed three people and injured over 170, President Obama addressed the nation: "We still do not know who did this or why.... [M]ake no mistake -- we will get to the bottom of this. And we will find out who did this; we'll find out why they did this." It should be noted that it is premature to say if the Boston Marathon attacks are acts of "terrorism" under the definition found in U.S. law: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."
By Friday night the "who" question was (as best we know) answered with the death and arrest of the two suspected perpetrators, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In the following days, headlines began to focus on the "why": Washington Post: "Search for Why Begins in Boston Marathon Bombings"; Chicago Tribune: "Boston Marathon Bombing Investigation Turns to Motive"; and Financial Times: "FBI Searches for Bombing Motive." Working off whatever unverified information they came across, experts, policymakers, and others felt comfortable guessing what motivated the two suspects, with their uncle providing the most concise explanation: "Being losers."
It is understandable for Americans to seek answers for the Tsarnaev brothers' motivations for such brutal attacks against innocent civilians and running gun battles with the police. There is a natural curiosity to determine what psychiatric disorder, psychosocial stressors, or personal or political grievances could compel someone to behave so abnormally. In the absence of a preexisting rationale or trigger, the abhorrent violence becomes all the more frightening since it seems both totally random and possible at any moment. Moreover, understanding motivations may provide some sense of closure for victims, victims' families, and the affected communities.
However, trying to answer why the Tsarnaev brothers conducted the Boston Marathon attacks will largely be a futile effort. It is extremely difficult to untangle the multiple motivations that lead someone to become a terrorist, though this does not deter scholars from attempting to do so -- here are 324 such studies through 2008. According to the Washington Post, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev "told interrogators that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack." Policymakers and pundits will dismiss this rationalization with little acknowledgment, analysis, or certainly sympathy. Moreover, even if we could agree that we had perfect information for why the attacks happened -- based upon the perpetrators' words, and corroborated with official investigations -- we won't engage in honest self-reflection or change public policy in response.
First, no state wants to acknowledge that their policies, institutions, or culture might contain any flaws that could serve as primary motivations for terrorism. Politicians cannot accept any correlation between domestic or foreign policies and terror attacks. To do so would -- the argument goes -- assign some moral equivalence to "our" behavior and "their" behavior, and thus legitimize the goals and means of terrorism. Even on a societal level, the phrase "this is why the terrorists hate us" has become shorthand for especially glaring examples of America's conspicuous consumption, gluttony, or sloth. But behind the jokes is pride that our founding fathers wanted us to have the freedom and opportunity to buy and consume and do whatever we like, without concerns as to how others might perceive this.
Second, even if we know the Tsarnaevs' motivations drew primarily from American domestic or foreign policies, the United States will not subsequently alter them, since that would be perceived as making concessions to terrorists. The theory is that if a state reveals that it is vulnerable to coercion, terrorists will pocket that appeasement, sense weakness, and escalate their demands with additional attacks. Historically, terrorist organizations have been lousy at achieving their intended political objectives. Max Abrahms looked at 28 groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department and determined "the groups accomplished their forty-two policy objectives only 7 percent of the time." Seth Jones and Martin Libicki compiled a dataset of all terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006. Of all 648 groups, only 27 (4 percent) achieved their strategic political demands. Similarly, of the more than 400 terrorists groups that Audrey Kurth Cronin analyzed, "less than five percent, by their own standards succeeded fully in achieving their aims."