EDITORIAL: Exploiting the Boston massacre

‘You never want a crisis to go to waste’

Bipartisanship is honored mostly in the breach, but nowhere is there more agreement among partisans in Washington than in celebration of Rahm Emanuel’s admonition that “you never want a crisis to go to waste.”

The angels of mercy at the finish line of the Boston Marathon had hardly collected all the severed limbs in the killing field before partisan exploitation of the terror began.

President Obama invoked his rules for civil behavior. “I’ve updated leaders of Congress in both parties,” he said, “and we reaffirmed that on days like this, there are no Republicans or Democrats. We are Americans, united in concern for our fellow citizens.”

Not everybody got the word.

One prominent Democrat suggested the bombers could have been evil Republicans frustrated by high taxes and their inability to persuade President Obama to live up to his promises to cut spending. David Axelrod, the top adviser to the Obama campaign last year, tried to explain why the president insisted on extending his civility campaign to terrorists, and was so reluctant on the first day to call the massacre the work of terrorists. “I’m sure what was going through the president’s mind,” Mr. Axelrod said, “is we really don’t know who did this [but] it was Tax Day.” Everyone, after all, was still smarting from the sting of April 15.

Barney Frank, the former congressman from Boston who never lets an opportunity to get in front of a camera go to waste, took the massacre as an eloquent argument for big government, though it took the voluble Mr. Frank a painful moment or two to say exactly why that was so. “I’m glad you raised that,” he told a television interviewer, “because it gives me a chance to make a point I’ve felt strongly about. In this terrible situation, let’s be very grateful that we had a well-funded functioning government.” He suggested some kind of tax on the massacre. “I hope we will be able to find some revenue so that Boston doesn’t have to pay for this absolutely necessary expenditure.”

When his interlocutor asked whether he was “capitalizing and making political hay of this event,” Mr. Frank shot back: “Yes! Exactly! I’m talking common sense.”

Occasional Republicans are determined not to let the crisis go to waste, either. Rep. Steve King of Iowa noticed that one of the first persons the police questioned was a Saudi and linked it to the immigration debate. “Some of the speculation that has come out is that, yes, it was a foreign national and, speculating here, that it was potentially a person on a student visa,” he said. “If that’s the case, then we need to take a look at the big picture … . 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 [million] to 20 million people that are here from who knows where?”

It’s against the backdrop of peril that some of our politicians give in so easily to the temptation to indulge in cheap politics. It’s only a matter of hours, perhaps in the next news cycle, before someone sees an opportunity in police speculation that the explosives in Boston were packed in a pressure cooker with nails and metal fragments, a crude copy of the roadside bomb that has taken so many American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s another crisis that must not be wasted.

Pressure for pressure-cooker control will inevitably follow, with zealots determined to confiscate pressure cookers. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg might suggest adding this kitchen assault weapon to the gun-control legislation now pending in Congress.

The Boston Marathon was a unique opportunity for exploitation, and the gruesome event was a textbook example of the dark arts of terrorism. The president, unless he was working from an agenda that no one has seen, missed the point that everyone else got loud and clear. The Marathon was the highlight of Patriots Day, which marks the anniversary of the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord and which is unique to Massachusetts. “The Marathon is a very special day around here,” said Gov. Deval Patrick.

It’s remarkable that the terrorists who are determined to bring America to its knees had overlooked sporting events the Super Bowl, the World Series, the vast array of college football games, all targets in a free society. None of these events is as inviting as a marathon, spread out over 26 miles through narrow streets and wide avenues and boulevards with dozens of opportunities for ambush by bomb. It’s the free and open way Americans celebrate themselves and their good fortune of living the free and easy life that offends terrorists of oppressive ideologies and stunted religions.

The success of stifling terrorism in the “homeland” between the Atlantic and the Pacific has lulled us into a sense of security that the Boston massacre now calls into question. We’ve been lucky so far, as London, Paris, Madrid and other cities in Europe have not been. There’s the natural temptation to think the worst is over because we so want it to be over. But relaxing is a luxury we’re not yet entitled to. Ray Kelly, the police commissioner of New York City, notes that the New York Police Department has foiled 16 major plots against the city. Plots elsewhere have been stopped.

In a world not as imperfect as this one, we could expect the special pleaders to wait, not long but at least a little while, to exploit tragedy for the sake of partisan politics. Leaping on the nearest horse to ride off in three directions in search of a conclusion is nearly always a waste of time, and a source of embarrassment if our politicians were as easily embarrassed as some of them ought to be.

The FBI has taken charge of the investigation and promises to pursue the evildoers “to the ends of the earth.” That may well be where the authorities will find them. Until then, letting an occasional crisis go to waste is neither crime nor sin.

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