By William Tucker
The morning after two explosions occurred at the end point of the Boston marathon there has been very little new information to report. Thus far, the reports of two improvised explosive devices detonating in a crowd of spectators leaving three dead and numerous wounded is still the most concrete information provided to the public. Rumors of other devices, persons of interests, and prior warnings are, at this point, just rumors. Truth be told, investigating a terrorist attack is a painstaking process and can take a significant amount of time. Just for perspective, imagine trying to find the remnants of an explosive device after it has been detonated in a public area. The search perimeter can span multiple city blocks and fragments of the device can be quite small. Next, the investigators will try to reassemble the fragments and reconstruct the device as much as possible. This process allows investigators to search different databases for similar IED designs and the possible bomb-maker, or bomb-making trainer. Keep in mind that this is only one aspect of the investigative process. Other avenues include interviewing witnesses, reviewing surveillance equipment, searching for other physical evidence, and cross checking the observations of security officials posted along the running route. Again, this is an intense, drawn out process that will take time.
Though details are still few, there are some early takeaways from yesterday’s attack that bear mentioning. In a conversation with fellow terrorism expert Aaron Mannes, he reminded me of a very important observation on terrorism made by Brian Jenkins. In 1975, Jenkins remarked, “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” Since the beginning of the modern age of terrorism – often recognized as starting in 1968 or 1969 – this observation was profound. But by 1985, Jenkins noted that the body count of terrorist attacks were rising. As time wore on it became apparent that this increase in carnage was not a passing trend and only seemed limited by terrorist capability – not by concern for having an overly bloody image. By 2006, Jenkins had amended his initial observation by stating, “Today, many (although not all) terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead.” The enduring point of this observation, however, is that terrorists not only want a lot of people watching, but they need a lot of people watching. Indeed, for all the destruction, heartache, and sorrow that follows in the wake of a terrorist attack it is necessary to remember that terrorism is intended as theater. It is no mistake that the modern age of terrorism followed on the heels of the expansion and availability of television news. As a terrorism expert, I have examined thousands of case studies of past terrorist attacks and exposure is a demonstrably constant theme. In the 3500 years of documented terrorism, this is unlikely to change though the scale of attacks will shift. Aaron would later remark, “This is looking like old school terror.” An astute observation in a flood of terrible reporting.
If we recognize the take away for this atrocity as the need of theater for the attacking terrorists, then how do we counter this aspect of an attack? It would seem a simple answer to turn off the television, but that medium is a vital method of communication in a nation as large as the United States. Instead, the understanding of what you are watching is of vital importance. In a word, perspective. The images we see on our televisions or internet video convey the horror of the moment in which an attack takes place. Naturally, we harbor an emotional bond with our fellow countrymen and watching them suffer needlessly is difficult. But it is here we must draw the line. The visuals of terror endure as long as we let them. Yesterday in Boston many people felt the immediate impact of terror, and were rightly frightened, but many more were not in the city. Those of us that were not present in Boston must not allow ourselves to be victimized by an image. Rather, the focus must shift to the response and how we can minimize the impact of future terrorist attacks. Yes, there will be terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the future, but there is much we can do now to prepare. The simple act of preparing and training for such eventualities does much to temper anxiety in midst of an atrocity or tragedy. In contrast to the attack, the people of Boston are fortunate that their city had invested a significant amount of effort into preparing for such an eventuality. Though not flawless, it was apparent that the response to the attack was well coordinated and handled rather effectively. Police communications were largely calm and professional. Bystanders were seen offering assistance without complicating the response. These takeaways are far more vital for all peoples who must endure terrorism, natural disasters, or man-made accidents. Essentially, everyone.
As is typical of the spring time, marathons will continue to take place as will other sporting events and mass gatherings. Other natural disasters and man-made events will continue to occur as they typically do throughout the year, but knowing that terrorism can occur should continue to spur us towards preparedness. Most forms of emergency response have overlapping similarities. As with a terrorist attack, natural disasters can cause suffering and extensive property damage. People in the affected area may not be able to contact loved ones and may be forced to stay in place for an extended period. All told, chaos should be expected. These are very real problems that are typically present in most disasters. How we prepare for these events, much in the same fashion the people of Boston prepared for their recent atrocity, is what will come to define these unfortunate incidents. Preparedness is always key. So much so that the British government created the now iconic “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster as a way to buoy public spirits at the onset of World War II. Perhaps Keep Calm and Prepare may be a more apropos slogan for the modern era.