The Boston Marathon Attack

Steve Saideman on the two things we can focus on in the face of tragedies like the attack in Boston: inevitability and resiliency.
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April 16, 2013
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I am not an expert on terrorism, and the one time I played that role on TV did not go well (the local Texas station egged me on to make it seem like Lubbock was under fire).  However, I cannot help but write about yesterday’s events for my weekly post.  For me, as an international relations scholar, I know that there are other events in the world and certainly tragedies occurring daily in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  Yet Boston pushes all of those events out of my mind, as I am an American, and Boston plays such a special part in American identity and history.

The Boston Marathon takes place on Patriots Day, which marks the battles of Lexington and Concord that started the American Revolution.  Because these key battles were near Boston, Massachusetts celebrates this day (along with Maine) with a day off from school, an early baseball game (the Red Sox won), and the marathon.  This, of course, makes any and all related events highly visible targets for anyone who wants to send a message. 

Still, it is way too early to offer much insight on the particular attack. My colleague, Jeremy Littlewood, does raise some key things to think about here.  Otherwise, we must observe every report and commentary with a huge grain of salt.  We do not know the extent of the attack nor its source.  There will be a tendency to fill the hours of TV and the pages of newsprint with whatever editors can find.  Twitter, blogs, and other social media allow for faster transmission of information (false or not) and opinion than ever before. 

For me, there are two things to focus on as we await more certainty about the events: inevitability and resiliency.

While we would like to have a 100% success rate against terrorist attacks, it is unrealistic to expect perfection.  There are simply too many causes that might motivate someone to commit such acts, there are too many activities and locations to protect all of the time, and there is too much time.  Eventually, someone will slip through the nets.  Yesterday, someone did (or some people did), despite a high security presence including bomb sniffing dogs.  There will be a tendency to point fingers and politicize, but the reality is that no country is immune (democracies tend to be targeted more).  Indeed, the U.S. has a long history of bombs being used by those with grievances and ideologies.

If mistakes were made, then we need to correct procedures.  But not all failures to predict something are really intelligence failures.  9/11 included some significant intelligence failures because various arms of the U.S. government detected pieces of the plot, but failed to put together the puzzle.  In many other events, it is simply not realistic to expect intelligence agencies to have connected the dots since there may have been few, if any, dots to connect. 

The second issue is of resilience.  The temptation is to overreact and change how one lives one’s life and how one governs.  The U.S. made that mistake many times and in many ways after 9/11.  But we didn’t stop flying, we didn’t stop gathering, and we didn’t really change how we lived our lives.  I expect that there will be more marathons and other sporting events, that security may be tightened a bit more.  I do hope that we do not overreact either in our politics of blame-casting or in our policies that might contribute to the theatre of security without significantly improving our actual security. 

The good news is that the people of Boston and beyond quickly demonstrated much resilience.  First responders did what they are trained to – head directly into the area to treat those harmed.  The surrounding community quickly opened up their doors for the visitors who were displaced.  Google even helped to crowdsource the effort to get people to find those who were missing.  Many people cited the Mr. Rogers quote about how to help kids deal with events like these: “Watch the helpers.”  Indeed, there was much aid given to those at the scene.  The rest of us could only watch on TV or the internet, but the day’s events proved once again that while one person or a small group can commit such grievous harm, they are always outnumbered by the people who seek to help.1  There is much solace to be gained by thinking about that.

1. I am grateful to the caustic comedian Patton Oswalt for his widely shared facebook message that conveyed exactly this message.