Securing a marathon against the repetition of the Boston bombing would be massive and costly undertaking. The Boston Marathon had 27,000 runners, and a half million spectators. The bombs went off at the finish line, but they could have been detonated at other points along the 26-mile route. And if denied access to the marathon, a determined terrorist bomber would still have numerous other venues where the same body count could be achieved.
Nonetheless, we could see some changes. In 1998, the U.S. government created National Special Security Events, which established a framework for enhanced security with support from federal agencies, including the Secret Service, the FBI, and FEMA. When an event is designated an NSSE, security protections are ramped up and usually include a heavier police presence, bomb-sniffing dogs, WMD detection systems, sharpshooters, and restrictions on air space. NSSEs have included political events like international summits, the major political conventions, the presidential inauguration, the State of the Union address, and the funerals of former presidents. The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans were the first sporting events designated for enhanced security.
While theoretically all mass gatherings are potential terrorist targets, not every sports contest or other event can be given NSSE status. The costs would be prohibitive. In the wake of the Boston bombing, Congress may want to revisit this issue, although fiscal realities will make it hard to do much more.
Will the Boston bombing lead to a curtailment of liberties?
All countries faced with a terrorist threat have changed the rules to facilitate the collection of intelligence, broaden police powers, create new domains of crime, and in some case, alter trial procedures. In the United States, the threat put pressure on law enforcement authorities, who are traditionally more reactive, to become better at anticipating threats and intervening before a terrorist attack occurs.
The United States did not adopt preventive detention, which exists in some democracies, although President Bush and President Obama have claimed that they already had the authority to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely and without trial. Congress later codified this in legislation, which was subsequently amended, but the debate surrounding it revealed a blurring of the lines between legal protocols and battlefield rules.
It would be incorrect to say that civil liberties in America were savaged after 9/11, but in the years since that awful event, the United States has put into place an institutional and legal infrastructure that easily could become oppressive. Thus far, the new authorities have been used judiciously, but a major terrorist event could alter that. The Boston bombing lacks the scale to rattle the republic, but with broader government power we dance a bit closer to the edge of tyranny.
How will the Boston bombing affect public attitudes?
Will it thrust the nation back into a shadow of fear like that cast by 9/11? That seems doubtful, although the Boston bombing will remind us to remain realistic about risk. Courage is easy here—the terrorist threat to the individual remains statistically minuscule. We face far greater danger every day in our automobiles.
In the 1970s, the United States experienced 50 to 60 terrorist bombings a year from left-wing extremists, anti-Castro fanatics, Puerto Rican separatists, and others pursuing foreign agendas. True, unlike today’s terrorists who are determined to kill in quantity, these earlier attacks were mostly symbolic—pipe bombs detonated at midnight outside government buildings and corporate headquarters—but there were casualties. People still went to work. The trains kept on running. The nation survived.
Reminded of the terrorist threat, people are likely to be more tolerant of all security measures. This will not last. Americans are a quarrelsome lot who resist intrusions on their privacy or person.
A positive development is that Americans have become more conscious and more engaged in their own security. This helps those charged with security and has great psychological utility. Lack of involvement contributes to passivity and creates a sense of helplessness. Members of the public can report suspicious activities and are invited to assist investigators. It is generally low-yield ore but citizens’ tips have foiled terrorist plots. More broadly, public involvement fosters a sense of self-reliance.
As America again buries its dead and prays for the recovery of the injured, it also must come to terms with broader societal wounds, freshly reopened. The initial instincts to attack the threat will be strong. The risk of overreaching in the name of homeland security is great. But the best and most likely outcome of this latest attack would be a measured security response built around Americans engaging anew in their own security.
Read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.