The Day After

How will the Boston Marathon bombing change the way America fights terrorism?

People walk to work by National Guardsman near the scene of twin bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 17, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Will the Boston bombing lead to permanent increases in security?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We have the measure of the tragedy in Boston, the tally of dead and injured, those who have lost limbs, those who remain in critical condition, the incalculable grief and sorrow Americans share.

But what will be the long-term consequences of this attack? Much will depend on who is found to be responsible, how soon, and whether further terrorist attacks occur before investigators can close the books on this one. Will intelligence agencies take the blame for failing to uncover a bomber in our midst? Will the bombing lead to the imposition of new security measures, not just at marathons or other major sporting events, but at all mass gatherings—more perimeters, more check points, more onerous searches? Will a frightened public embrace further curtailments of liberty in the name of security? Will the bloodshed in Boston, where 238 years ago citizen soldiers fired the first shots of a revolution, foster new attitudes about the role of today’s citizens in their own defense?

Will the Boston bombing be viewed as an intelligence failure?

Intelligence has significantly improved since 9/11. At the international level, the United States has mounted a massive intelligence effort to attack al-Qaida’s global terrorist enterprise with unprecedented cooperation from the world’s intelligence services and law enforcement organizations. Domestically, the FBI has carried out a remarkable transformation of its institutional culture to become an effective domestic intelligence agency, assisted at the local level by the intelligence efforts of police departments. As a result, the FBI and local authorities have foiled most of the terrorist plots in the United States since 9/11.

Domestic intelligence collection is always a delicate business in a democracy. Opponents have attacked these programs on the grounds that they discriminate against specific communities and threaten civil liberties. In the immediate shadow of 9/11, these complaints found little support, but as people have come to feel safer, critics of domestic intelligence gathering have launched new offensives.

No one seriously believes that intelligence efforts can detect every terrorist plot. The majority of the terrorist plots uncovered since 9/11 have involved a single individual. Few of them had any prior connections with terrorism. Many plots were uncovered through sting operations, but this kind of detection is unlikely when individuals carry out plots without the help of others. We have no X-ray for a man’s soul.

Intelligence did not prevent the attack in Boston. This intelligence “failure” will be reviewed to see what was missed. Analysts live in dread of the “unattended dot” that should have been connected but was not.

Will the Boston bombing lead to permanent increases in security? 

Security nationwide has already gone up a notch, as can be expected in the immediate wake of any major terrorist event. This is driven in part by fears that the attack is the beginning of a wave of attacks, a reality that must be accepted particularly while those responsible remain at large.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was followed by a second conspiracy to continue the terrorist campaign. Eric Rudolph, the man responsible for the 1996 bombing during the Olympics in Atlanta, carried out further bombings before he was apprehended. When the Times Square bomber was prompted to flee, he already had other targets in mind.

Terrorist attacks, especially if successful, can invite imitation, making it risky to sidestep the instinct to tighten security. Even discounting the possibility of copycat attacks, major terrorist events still invariably inspire increased threats and reports of suspicious objects and unusual behavior in the short term. Authorities must prepare for these. 

Attempted terrorist attacks on airliners have prompted swift and permanent increases in security. The Shoe Bomber’s attempt to bring down an airliner in 2001 led to requirements to remove shoes at security checkpoints. The discovery in 2006 of a plot to bring down commercial airliners with liquid explosives promptly led to restrictions on liquids. The Underwear Bomber’s failed attempt to blow up an airliner in 2009 prompted the deployment of full body scanners. But in these cases, there was a security regime already in place—a security checkpoint where new procedures could easily be added and new technology deployed.

Protecting public spaces is much more difficult. Keeping terrorists from taking over or blowing up commercial airliners offers a net security benefit, but these results cannot easily be duplicated at other targets. If denied access to one public space, a determined terrorist need only choose from limitless alternative locations where roughly the same results can be achieved.

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.