The pieces of a pressure cooker bomb, utilized in Marine Corps training in Afghanistan.
A little less than 24 hours after the explosions, details about the bombs that turned the Boston Marathon into the scene of a massacre have started trickling out. According to multiple unnamed sources familiar with the investigation, there were two devices — one for each explosion — that they believe were six-liter pressure cookers, one filled with nails and the other with metal shards and ball bearings, attached to a rudimentary kitchen timer and hidden on the ground near the race course. Others say that the pressure cookers were in backpacks, but that detail isn't as important as the bombs themselves.
So we've got some details to work with, but honestly, we don't have much. This is a dangerous situation. It's the perfect recipe for speculation, finger-pointing, fear-mongering and straight up racism (among other things). And that's exactly what happened when the details of the pressure cooker bombs emerged.
It's not so much about what the bombs tell us about the bombers in Boston. Rather, it's what they don't tell us. They don't tell us that it was the Taliban, despite what scores of idiots on Twitter are saying. In fact, the Pakistani Taliban quickly denied involvement in the attack, though there are other branches of the organization that haven't spoken up.
Al Qaeda's been known to employ the pressure cooker bomb technique, too, but federal authorities have said very plainly that they have no indication that Al Qaeda was involved. One official told The New York Times that intelligence agencies picked up "no pre-attack chatter" about Boston, suggesting that this attack didn't come from a terrorist organization at all — at least not one that the government is watching.
Video of a military bomb squad disposal of a pressure cooker IED in Afghanistan. This IED contained about 25 pounds of Home Made Explosives (HME), which are normally packed with A.N.A.L. (Ammonium Nitrate and Aluminum).
The fact of the matter is that pressure cooker bombs are so cheap and easy-to-make that these details don't tell us much at all about the bombers. The white smoke that filled the air after the blasts doesn't explain anything about what explosive was used. Reportedly, the bomber(s) used kitchen timers, which are even less sophisticated than the very unsophisticated Casio watch technique favored by Al Qaeda. The rest of the materials could probably be found in the majority of kitchens and garages around the world, and the instructions are a Google search away.
All of these details explain why the government's been worried about pressure cooker bombs for years. It didn't help when authorities found a pot, shrapnel, and instructions on how to assemble a bomb printed in Al Qaeda's magazine Inspire that belonged to Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan. The failed 2010 Times Square bombing in New York City also involved a pressure cooker that had been stuffed with firecrackers.
Department of Homeland Security 2010 warning on Pressure Cookers
The military knows that this design is popular among insurgents. The Department of Homeland Security has issued a number of alerts, in the meantime. TIME's Michael Crowley flags this passage from a 2004 alert:
Pressure cooker bombs are made with readily available materials and can be as simple or as complex as the builder decides. These types of devices can be initiated using simple electronic components including, but not limited to, digital watches, garage door openers, cell phones or pagers. As a common cooking utensil, the pressure cooker is often overlooked when searching vehicles, residences or merchandise crossing the U.S. Borders.
The problem with terrorism is that it terrifies, and people do unfortunate things when terrified. We saw this play out in real time on Monday when reports of a Saudi national being questioned circulated around the web. Apparently, a concerned bystander saw the man fleeing the scene of the first explosion, tackled him to the ground, and alerted authorities. But everybody was fleeing the scene of the first explosion. The only difference with the Saudi man was that he had dark skin.
Quite frankly, we know very little about the bombings at this point in time, and the bombs themselves don't say much. We know that two bombs exploded, injuring nearly 200 people and killing three. We know that countless acts of heroism helped those people get help quickly. We know that somebody built these bombs and dropped them by the course. We do not know who they are. Police don't even have any suspects.
So slow your roll, folks. Blaming the Taliban or Al Qaeda or Iran or Saudi Arabia (or really anybody at this point) isn't going to help us find justice any faster. It will just fuel the racist tendencies of some, and help propagate the conspiracy theories that are already popping up. And that's terrifying in its own way.