The Age of Fear and What to Do About the Next Boston Marathon

Posted on April 16, 2013


Yesterday, bomb blasts shattered the excitement and exhilaration of the home stretch of the Boston Marathon.  Two killed.  Dozens injured.  The President promised the “full weight of justice” against the perpetrators.

But then what?  How will America’s leaders, bureaucrats, and administrators respond?

Our country has had a worrying trend lately toward zero tolerance for just about anything dangerous, sad, scary, or destructive.  I almost have the sense that we are becoming a rather ugly police state in the effort to secure everything, at any cost; expensively, tediously, invasively,  not very effectively, and always in knee-jerk reaction to the most recent event.  We cling to such justifications as “If this saves just one life, it will all have been worth it.”  This is a weakness because it inevitably shrinks our own freedoms and our individual responsibility.

It was Ben Franklin who was credited with the phrase, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Freedom is a scary thing.  If we can move freely around our cities and around the country, so can the Bad Guys.  If we have an expectation of privacy in our homes and persons, so do the Bad Guys.  We can’t have things both ways; there is no way to just preemptively stop the Bad Guys without stopping everyone else, too.

People I have discussed this with fall into two camps.  The “Freedom is Essential to America” camp would much prefer to accept risk in the pursuit of freedom.  Crimes will be committed, people will be hurt or killed sometimes, but America – the Great Experiment – will continue.  The “100% Security at Any Cost” camp is frightened, and demands draconian measures in pursuit of safety.  So much for old Ben.

The problem with the second camp is that no security measures are ever 100% effective, and if criminals are intent on doing harm, there is always a crowded “soft target” to go after:  if not an airport, school, or stadium, then how about a farmer’s market, a shopping mall, a movie theater, or… a marathon?  Meanwhile, We The People are increasingly content to be lumped into a faceless herd of cattle, intimidated into silence and compliance, searched and suspected by heavy-handed authorities, who are only doing their jobs “for our own good.”  Worst of all, we are made complacent, wrongly believing that such onerous measures must be effective, and we drop our vigilance because we’re not responsible.  Maybe the authorities these days don’t allow us to be responsible.

This is all wrong!  America is supposed to be about freedom, opportunity, open spaces and personal responsibility.  Self-reliance, pioneer spirit, The Great Melting Pot.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The golden door!  Not the metal detector, the X-ray backscatter scanner, and the pat-down.

So what’s my big suggestion for securing the Boston Marathon next year?   Well, there are some obvious, unobtrusive measures like removing trash cans along the route, but basically – nothing.  It’s a long route through a major city, with crowds participating and crowds watching and crowds of support personnel.  Trying to make brute-force security changes is not an option here.

The additional ingredient that we need everywhere is public vigilance.  Remember the attempted Times Square car bombing?  That was stopped in its tracks thanks to a couple of alert street vendors who noticed the vehicle and called police.   Remember the foiled Shoe Bomber and Underwear Bomber?  They were stopped by alert plane passengers and crew members.  See something, say something!  Or as we used to say in the military:  Stay alert, stay alive.

That is what self-policing is all about.  Rather than putting the whole burden on our security forces, at considerable expense to ourselves, we should all be vigilant, always alert to suspicious behavior, to out-of-place objects.  The public should not be seen as a herd of suspects to be screened, searched, funneled here and channeled there.  The public is a vast security tool in the US arsenal, if only we will step up to the responsibility, and if only the authorities will let us.

As for the athletes, Dave Zirin said it best in his article in The Nation:

Today we saw not of the world we’d aspire to live in, but the one we actually inhabit. Instead of the triumph of the individual amidst the powerful throngs and inspiration of the collective, we have tragedy, disarray, panic, and fear. Like a scar, it now marks us: the loss of security among the mass. But like a scar, we may need to wear it proudly. We will run next year because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.