Handling the Unstoppable Terror Threat

Not all acts of terrorism are preventable. A resilience approach to homeland security is thus crucial.

U.S. law-enforcement officials could not have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings, the New York Times reported recently. Though some intelligence processes have since been improved, an FBI official stated, “It’s fair to say that had these adjustments been in existence before the attacks, the outcome would likely not have been any different.” Acknowledging this reality—that some attacks will not be stopped—should cause American communities to prepare now for the disasters of the future, focusing both on risk-avoidance and risk-mitigation.

The attacks, which took place now several months ago—killing three, including a boy of eight, and wounding hundreds of others—tragically ended Boston’s Patriot Day celebrations and cast a shadow over the nation’s most prestigious distance-running event.

By now the narrative is well known: On April 15th, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev blew up pressure-cooker bombs close to the race’s finish line, then escaped the scene undetected. Police identified the brothers as suspects on April 18th and located them in Watertown, Massachusetts in the early morning of the 19th. In the ensuing firefight, one brother was killed and the other escaped. Later that morning, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick asked residents of Watertown, Boston, and adjacent towns to “shelter in place,” putting life for some one million Americans on hold. Meanwhile, as many as 9,000 policemen unsuccessfully searched a twenty-block cordon of Watertown neighborhoods. That night, two hours after Governor Patrick lifted the “shelter in place” request, a Watertown resident sighted the wounded suspect on his property, where police then captured him.

The Boston bombing is an example of how we, as a nation of first responders, react to a crisis: we cordon off access, “secure the crime scene,” and constrict transportation and commercial activity. Responding in this manner tends to exacerbate the original disaster by unwittingly inflicting secondary wounds. Preliminary estimates have projected that shutting down Boston for the day cost between $250 and $333 million.

Perhaps there is a better way. America should rethink its typical approach of risk-avoidance and work to enable local and regional communities to elevate security—before, during, or after a crisis—while simultaneously maintaining economic activity. Resilience—an active virtue of adaptation—would argue for a risk-management approach in which the local community is provided the necessary information, accepts a level of inevitable danger, and measures the benefit of collective action—a full community search effort—against the psychological and economic costs of self-isolation.

That a civilian spotted the Boston bomber after the “shelter in place” request was rescinded is significant. An informed community of active observers can see more than thousands of policemen. Such citizen observers would be even more vital if a terrorist were on the run, since policemen would not have the advantage of concentrating their efforts on one area.

Furthermore, the sustainment of commerce increases public confidence and serves as a potential deterrent to future would-be attackers. Although sometimes we cannot stop an attack—as was the case in Boston—by maintaining commerce and transportation in the impacted area, we can deny terrorists the satisfaction of witnessing further economic terror. While authorities may need to secure a specific area, resilient preparations may obviate the need for a large-scale reaction.

Far from reflecting self-serving materialism, this approach is informed by strategy. Understanding the objectives of our enemies should influence our reaction. Al Qaeda, for one, believes it can accomplish its goals through both a traumatizing attack on America’s population and a punishing disruption to our economy. For example, the latest issue of the Islamist magazine Inspire celebrated the negative economic effects of the Boston bombing, and the “lockdown” response of law-enforcement. Similarly, it previously proclaimed the Christmas Day 2009 “underwear” bombing attempt a success even though the bomber was stopped because the attempt was part of “Operation Hemorrhage,” an effort focused on instigating fear and causing economic damage. The initial disaster is the terror attack. But a subsequent crisis occurs if we self-impose further stresses on the nation by our response. President Bush stated this well after 9/11: “we must stand against terror by going back to work . . . Everybody here who showed up for work . . . is making a clear statement that terrorism will not stand, that the evildoers will not be able to terrorize America and our work force and our people.” When we shut down, the enemy wins.

Pages