The Boston Marathon bombings of Monday afternoon marked the first major terror attack carried out on U.S. soil since al Qaeda struck with devastating force on September 11, 2001. With three confirmed dead, among them an eight-year-old boy waiting for his father at the finish line, and local hospitals receiving at least 176 persons, many with serious injuries and some requiring amputation, the city of Boston turned from jubilation to stunned silence. Shortly before 3 pm, a quarter of a mile or so before the finish line, two loud blasts went off within seconds of each other. Spectators and runners knocked over by the force of the blast sat amidst blood and debris on the road. Doctors treating the injured were said to be pulling ball-bearings and shrapnel out of people, suggesting a bomb designed for lethal impact. U.S. law enforcement, which did not appear to have any advance intelligence of the incident, went into fourth gear immediately. Major cities were put on high alert, and a no-fly zone and temporary airport “ground stop” were imposed in Boston. On Tuesday morning the Federal Bureau of Investigation, now in charge of the criminal investigation into the attack, raided a high-rise apartment in Boston in search of a “person of interest.”

In a statement made a few hours after the attack, President Barack Obama seemed to be conscious of the legacy of suspicion that followed 9/11, particularly the violent backlash against Muslims, Sikhs and other ethnic minorities. “We don’t yet have all the answers,” he said. “We still do not know who did this or why... People shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts.” Yet even as he spoke there were unconfirmed reports in the media about a Saudi national said to have been questioned at a hospital. Some media outlets got ahead of themselves, speculating over whether foreign or home-grown terror groups could be involved. Yet as of Tuesday, the authorities made it clear they had no concrete leads. After nearly a decade of polarising experience with hate crimes, Islamophobia and the suspension of civil liberties under legislation such as the U.S. Patriot Act, it is only in the past few years that the U.S. has enacted stronger protections for minorities and free speech. There is a real risk that Monday’s bombing and Mr. Obama’s promise that the attackers would feel the “full weight of justice” may lead to the rollback of these hard-fought rights. If they do, it may once again draw the U.S. back into a negative spiral of injurious overreach in foreign policy and domestic policing that will damage the civilisational fabric of America without making the country any more secure.

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