Global Matters: Terror in Boston, and the price of prevention
As Boston recovers from the brutal attack on the marathon and the city begins to regain its equilibrium , the eyes of the nation and the attention of Congress will soon turn away from the incident itself and pivot to the so-called “root causes” of terror.
We’ll stop seeing the now familiar, grainy footage of the brothers Tsarnaev toting their backpacks down Boylston Street, and we’ll spend more of our time wondering what could have been done that wasn’t in our quest to prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring again.
During this next phase we will learn the extent to which the suspects assimilated (or didn’t assimilate) into the local community, the extent to which they had (or hadn’t) any friends, the extent to which they turned (or didn’t turn) to radical Islam for inspiration, the extent to which they planned (or didn’t plan) this attack for months, and so on.
We will learn that someone’s father didn’t love him, someone’s childhood was a disaster, someone’s ethnicity was his destiny, and on and on.
Then we will consider the weapons used to perpetrate this atrocity and wonder whether there’s something that can be done to limit access or provide notification. But then we will acknowledge the relentless creativity of the ruthlessly malevolent. We have, after all, witnessed murders involving an impressive array of instruments, ranging from aircraft, fertilizer and automatic weapons to anthrax, explosives and, now, pressure cookers.
So we move on.
Some will wonder aloud whether we should change our immigration policies to keep immigrants out, or perhaps just the ones from certain regions, or perhaps just those who practice certain religions.
But we know, really, that there aren’t any actions we can take to protect ourselves fully against all threats. The most restrictive immigration policies imaginable could not have protected us from the perpetrators of Oklahoma City, Aurora, Newtown, and Columbine. All were home-grown.
Nor can we regulate every item that is capable of being maliciously deployed, any more than we can be so vigilant as to anticipate the angry rampage of a neighbor who doesn’t say hello and sticks to himself, or who, for that matter, joins the wrestling team or competes in the Golden Gloves.
In the end, what the Boston tragedy teaches us is that the only way to identify threats and take preemptive action is to deploy technologies that require us to sacrifice our privacy. How much of our privacy are we willing to compromise, and whom are we willing to trust with our most personal information?
It is stunning to realize how quickly investigators were able to identify the suspects in the Boston bombings. Security tapes led to still photographs which led to positive identification, which led to apartments, automobiles, computers, social media accounts, personality profiles, travel itineraries, family members, financial transactions and much more that will come to light in the coming days. Finally, infrared photography deployed from a surveillance helicopter confirmed the presence of one suspect as he hid in a boat on private property in suburban Boston.
Even as we applaud the virtuoso performance of law enforcement, important issues are raised by the ubiquity and accessibility of so much personal data. It may be, as some say, that if you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear.
By the same token, it is now clear that every purchase, every phone call, every text message, every website, every toll booth, every tax bill, every neighbor, every interaction creates a profile and a path and tells a story that can be used to identify a person – almost any person – in any community.
In the interest of security, such information will surely be more widely available to law enforcement officials, and we will have to hope and trust that they act upon it for the common good and according to standards that preserve and protect the rights of individuals from unreasonable intrusion.
If access to this information and action based upon it could have saved the lives of three innocents in Boston and spared hundreds the agony of their wounds, most of us – myself included – would happily hand it over.
Still, as our experience dealing with terrorism and its aftermath mounts, the question raised by the Boston bombings is not so much, “What can we do to prevent future attacks? “
The question is, “Are we willing to accept what we know can be done?”