How Washington Interprets a Tragedy

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 16 2013 6:59 PM

A Tragic Cause

Even before the facts are known, Washington is poised to speculate on the meaning of the Boston bombings.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY) listens during a hearing on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response".
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has suggested the Boston Marathon bombing should affect Homeland Security budgeting

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

When a man-made disaster strikes any other city, Washington holds its breath. On Tuesday, the pedestrian stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House had been cleared and cordoned off from tourists. Metro stations received more noticeable visits from cops and police dogs. On the walk into the Capitol, trash cans—two of those were used to conceal timed explosives at locations of the Boston Marathon—were turned on their sides, empty and harmless, like Brutalist bird-feeders.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

But Congress was one whole tragedy behind. Victims and survivors of gun violence were still on the Hill, lobbying for cloture on a much-diluted gun control bill. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who’s become a uniquely powerful advocate for universal background checks, was ushered up to the Democrats’ lunch by her husband Mark Kelly and bill sponsor Sen. Joe Manchin, slogging through platoons of reporters and TV cameras. Members of Congress knew what to say about Newtown. They didn’t quite know how to talk about Boston.

“Whenever we have an attack like this it’s difficult not to think that it’s somehow involved in Islamic extremism,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, until recently a top member of the Homeland Security committee and still a prime mover on security bills. “I don’t have evidence to back that up. That’s just based on previous attacks.”

Collins, more than some senators, was willing to tease out the hypothetical. “It’s a very important question, whether it’s a plot that originated overseas or whether it’s a lone wolf,” she said. “The question is: What do we do once we do capture the individual? How’s he treated? If he’s an American, obviously, then the constitutional protections pertain. If he is a foreign national, in my view, then he should be held by a military tribunal and he should not be read his Miranda rights as [the Christmas Day Bomber] was.”

The people who think Washington pivots from tragedy to legislative “solutions” aren’t paranoid. They’ve got proof. After 9/11, Congress rushed through a PATRIOT Act that contained provisions previous Congresses had nixed. After Newtown, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein confirmed she was ready to introduce a new assault weapons ban, which sent National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre into his usual level of apoplexy. “She has had her gun ban legislation in her desk for over a year—waiting for the right time to introduce it,” he said. “Really? Waiting for an unspeakable act to occur so the American people could be persuaded to buy into her political agenda?”

Boston is different. No one but the perpetrator knows who’s responsible. In the morning and afternoon, senators with access to intelligence briefings sought information, but couldn’t say what cities or security forces needed to do to prevent attacks.

“The FBI and DHS are investigating this as a terrorist attack,” said Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, a member of the Homeland Security committee. “It’s not clear whether it is, whether it’s an attack launched domestically, or outside our country.” As an aide politely passed on a Fox News interview—the network’s camera crew was lying in wait for senators—Carper talked about the wisdom imparted on Amtrak journeys between D.C. and Wilmington. “One of our adages on the train is: If you see something, say something. That’s an adage we should embrace.”

Republicans put that sentiment a little differently. “On 9/11, we were forever disabused of the notion that attacks like the one that rocked Boston yesterday only happen on the field of battle, or in distant countries,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell in his morning floor speech. “With the passage of time, however, and the vigilant efforts of our military, intelligence, and law enforcement professionals, I think it’s safe to say that, for many, the complacency that prevailed prior to Sept. 11 has returned.”

Security hawks have some ideas about arresting that “complacency.” New York Rep. Peter King, one of the first members of Congress to speak to national media after the bombings in Boston, told MSNBC that it was “foolhardy” to make cuts to the Department of Homeland Security’s budget. “I do think we need more cameras,” he said. “We have to stay ahead of the terrorists and I do know in New York, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, which is based on cameras, the outstanding work that results from that.”

That would mean money, but a new focus on security could mean more than funding. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 has been amended before, in the wake of threats, to require “back doors” for law enforcement to monitor or access new technologies. A new or amended CALEA could make those requests of programs like Skype; it could set rules for when and how police can review bulk cell-tower records. At a briefing with reporters, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer led off with remarks on Boston and added that it was “interesting that this week we are considering, as you know, cyber security legislation.”

What else could get a second glance as law enforcement looks at Boston? Both Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, cohorts in the “Gang of Eight” working out an immigration bill, suggested that their bill might look even more necessary if—as we know, we don’t know—the culprit in Boston was a foreign national.

“It may be an argument for the kind of things we’re talking about,” McCain said. “Exit–entry visas, e-verify. In fact, I think it should accelerate [the bill].”

McCain, accidentally and by long distance, was debating Iowa Rep. Steve King. He’d suggested to National Review that the Boston attacks should move Congress from debating immigration to debating security. “We need to take a look at the visa-waiver program and wonder what we’re doing,” he’d said. “If we can’t background-check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background check the 11 to 20 million people that are here from who knows where?”

That was another debate, to be held some other day. At 3 p.m., Giffords and her husband joined the family of Gabriel Zimmerman for their only public event of the day. Zimmerman, a staffer who had been murdered by the Tucson gunman who had shot Giffords, was being honored; a room on the Hill was being renamed in his honor. Seated at the front of the room were political rivals who were on the verge of either passing or filibustering the gun bill Giffords wanted. Vice President Joe Biden took the opportunity to preview the next agonizing, paranoia-feeding response to a tragedy.

“We will find out what happened,” he said. “We will bring them to justice. We will come out of what’s happened in Boston stronger.”