Question: How can one critically examine the "Boston Strong" campaign and nonstop security hype related to Beantown’s marathon — without being accused of callousness and insensitivity?
And for a commentator doing his or her job, that’s the way it should be. So let’s get right to it.
The obvious cannot be overstated. America’s heart goes out to the three who died and the hundreds injured, many of whom lost arms and legs. The survivors have shown tremendous courage in the face of unimaginable difficulties and their stories serve as the ultimate inspiration to never stop fighting.
That said, we must remove emotion and look at the events leading up to the bombing, how the situation unfolded, the ensuing search and how America has reacted.
It’s not a pretty picture, since we are ultimately setting ourselves up for a big fall if and when a larger, more organized attack occurs. Consider:
1.) The bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers should have never happened. Period. Despite Russian intelligence telling the FBI, CIA, State Department and Homeland Security numerous times (starting in 2011) that Tsarnaev had violent ties to Muslim terrorists, he passed right through our grasp at JFK Airport twice. And all because — ready for this? — his name was spelled with an extra "y" in a database. So our intelligence community can read every email and text we’ve ever written (though they apparently weren’t listening in on the Tsarnaevs), and hack any computer on the planet, but it can’t red flag a watch-list name that’s off by one letter? That’s an inexcusable mistake and it cost lives.
Our first line of defense should have worked, but in what has become a disturbing pattern, it tragically failed.
2.) Compared to the precision planning and intense discipline of the 9/11 attackers, the Tsarnaev brothers were buffoons. They had no disguises, fashioned crude explosives with virtually no strategic plan on how to detonate them, and no escape contingency — choosing to rob a 7-Eleven instead of getting out of Dodge. Yet, despite no-fly zones over Boston and a martial law-like lockdown of the entire city, law enforcement still failed to find them. Alert private citizens did. Sometimes more is just more — not better.
3.) How soon we forget. Not to minimize the Boston tragedy, but it pales in comparison to a host of other attacks America has suffered. Three lost their lives in Boston, compared to 3,000 on 9/11, yet the media and governmental response has been vastly disproportional to the event.
Mass shootings killing scores of people at schools, colleges, workplaces, theaters and even Army bases pose a far more serious threat to Americans than bumbling loner fundamentalists, yet attention continues to be excessively focused in the wrong places.
Why? Because it’s easy to wrap our hands around a terrorist who wants to "take our freedom and democracy," as one runner stated. That sentiment rules the day because the alternative is a lot harder: figuring out why our homegrown American children are increasingly turning to mass murder as a way to express themselves. Solving that problem means asking tough questions and tackling issues head-on, but we have become a country much more content to take the path of least resistance, avoiding any subject that might "offend" someone — which entails pretty much everything.
4.) The media hype surrounding the anniversary of the attack was incredibly irresponsible — and dangerously overblown. Believing the fallacy that such sensationalism increases ratings, the nonstop media stories, fueled by law enforcement and government officials who felt compelled to share their detailed security plans (why?) and show off their tactical toys, first served to instill fear. But soon thereafter, the monotony made people tune out. Ironically, the opposite of the desired effect occurs; as the "cry wolf" syndrome sets in, people become less vigilant. The more warnings issued, the less seriously they are taken.
5.) There is a fine line between reasonably making people feel safe and security overkill; when the latter is employed, it can become extremely counterproductive. All of this was coordinated from a Cold War-like command bunker, which ABC News described as "an underground, futuristic coordination center boasting some 260 security officials representing more than 60 local, state and federal agencies."
Why the insatiable need to tell the world about those plans? Doing so only aids a would-be terrorist or copycat. And a race official made worldwide headlines by going so far as to declare that Boston would be "the safest place on the planet."
First, try telling that to all the victims of other crime in Boston on Marathon Monday. And such a boast would have blown up in officials’ faces should an attack have occurred. If there had been a shooting spree or another bombing — under the imprimatur of "safest city" — what would have been the reaction? Quadrupling the police? Bringing in the National Guard next year? Future races with no spectators? Or most likely, no more marathons?
No place can ever be fully secured, especially when dealing with terrorists unafraid of death. The Sept. 11 attacks should have provided a stark reminder of that, but it’s a lesson that seems lost on too many leaders. In our culture of fear, it should be a no-brainer that speaking in absolutisms produces nothing positive and could lead to widespread panic should the unthinkable occur. There’s an old adage that should be a mandatory lesson for all officials: under-promise and over-deliver.
While reasonable security precautions are necessary, it is both egotistical and irrational to pretend that we can be completely safe. It’s time to stop the grandstanding that scares people instead of reassuring them, and start refining our intelligence and law enforcement capabilities so that we can institute real security measures.
Doing so is a marathon process, not a knee-jerk sprint. But if we commit to the long haul, we will truly become America Strong.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column runs every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].