Four things Boston teaches us about handling terror
April 22nd, 2013
09:28 AM ET

Four things Boston teaches us about handling terror

By Stephen E. Flynn, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Stephen Flynn is founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security and a professor of political science at Northeastern University. The views expressed are his own.

The twin bombings at the Boston marathon and the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers captivated the nation last week.  Nearly a dozen years after 9/11, a great American city was once again under attack. The response by Bostonians was to care for the wounded, support efforts by law enforcement to identify and apprehend the culprits, and take back their lives. As Fenway Park roared back to live on Saturday, fans armed with “Boston Strong” signs, cheered on their home team who had swapped out “Red Sox” for “Boston” on their uniforms.

The people of Boston have shown the nation how to cope with the new face of terrorism.

“Boston is a tough and resilient town,” President Barack Obama rightly observed, and resilience is the critical ingredient for confronting this ongoing risk. Terrorism’s primary appeal for an adversary is its potential to cause the targeted society to overreact in costly, disruptive, and self-destructive ways.  So when an attack is met with fearlessness, selflessness, and competence, it fails. The British and Israelis have learned this lesson and practice it. As an Israeli friend reminded me shortly after the bombs went off on the finish line of the Boston marathon: “The most effective way to cope (with) and to beat terror is to return as fast as you can to routine.”

Societal resilience can help deter future terror attacks. Embracing it is not an act of defeatism and resignation. Instead it is a commitment to ensuring that our communities and critical infrastructure are not soft and tempting targets for those who might consider pursuing terrorism as a means of warfare. If an attack ends up being a fizzle instead of a big bang, would-be terrorists have to reconsider the value of undertaking such attacks on U.S. soil. Terrorism as a weapon becomes far less potent and attractive when it fails to achieve its disruptive goals.

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Alternatively, reflexively overreacting to real and anticipated terrorist attacks ends up elevating the threat. When elected officials rush to the microphones and engage in a bidding war over deploying draconian protective measures for addressing real and imagined vulnerabilities, they end up inadvertently providing the fuel for future attacks. The hoped-for pay off for many terrorist groups is to spook Americans into violating our values and emptying our treasury in pursuit of the often-illusionary goal of achieving a greater measure of security.

There are four lessons that Bostonians can teach Washington when it comes to dealing with the ongoing threat of terrorism.

First, it is important to recognize that since every act of violence cannot be prevented, it is a good idea to be well prepared for when bad things do happen. Investments in drills and exercises at the local level pay off in saving lives. In the critical seconds and minutes after a disaster strikes, it is family members, neighbors, perfect strangers, and local public safety personnel that will often spell the difference between life and death. So channeling resources to enhance local capabilities makes sense. This means that we need to reconsider Washington’s post-9/11 decision to invest almost exclusively in national security capabilities for combating terrorism overseas, while making only token investments in safeguarding our communities at home.

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Second, in the aftermath of an attack, it is vitally important to nimbly put together a clear picture that can distinguish real from perceived risk. This means that intelligence is as important immediately following an event as it is before. If risk feels unbounded as it did on 9/11, the impulse by security and elected officials is to shut things down until the threat can be sorted out.  But grounding aviation, closing borders, and locking down cities have real costs and consequences including providing the motivation for future attacks. So getting answers quickly is key to tempering a kill-switch response. To this end, whether it is in supporting forensic activity or conducting a manhunt, the local community is an indispensible asset. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother were identified thanks in part to the ubiquity of social media. He was apprehended not as a result of the daylong house-to-house search conducted by hundreds of law enforcement officers. The capture appears to have come as a result of a tip by a homeowner who saw the plastic cover on the boat in his driveway flapping in the wind and went to investigate. In fact, the homeowner may have discovered Tsarnaev much earlier, but he did not venture into his yard until the stay-inside order had been lifted.

Third, while being prepared to respond to terrorist attacks is crucial, so too are having plans and conducting exercises for nimbly recovering from these events. This includes rapidly restoring public services and working out in advance a communication strategy for informing and engaging the public when the threat is still ongoing. As Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick undoubtedly learned during Friday’s manhunt, it is easier to shutdown a metropolitan area than it is to turn it back on. Unlike closing and opening highways for a blizzard that has a clear beginning and end, managing a terrorism incident can be more open-ended. To Patrick’s credit, even when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was still at large, the governor withdrew the shelter-in-place request when it became clear that paralyzing the region could not continue. And the people of Boston showed their grit by being willing to immediately return to streets and gather in groups as soon as they were once again allowed to do so.

Fourth, resilience needs to be documented and celebrated. The impulse of the mass media is to focus on the harm of an attack, who caused it, and why it was not prevented. But as Boston demonstrated, there are equally compelling stories in how people respond and bounce back after these events. President Obama deserves high marks for making the actions of Bostonians, not those of terrorists, the focus of his public remarks. In a rare and welcome display of bipartisanship, so too did Senator Tim Scott in delivering the Republican weekly radio broadcast on April 20.

Fear becomes disabling when we feel powerless in the face of danger. Accordingly, we can take much of the terror out of terrorism when we bolster our capabilities, individually and collectively, for managing the many hazards posed by the 21st century.

Patriots Day commemorates the battle at Lexington and Concord – the opening skirmish in America’s War of Independence.  The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, described the first shot fired in the battle by the Patriots as the “shot heard 'round the world.” On the day marking the birth of American freedom, Bostonians have provided something new to be celebrated at home and abroad on future holidays – American resilience in the face of terrorism.

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Topics: Terrorism • United States

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