Boston Marathon Security: Going About it All Wrong

Posted on February 28, 2014


It’s time for America to stop letting terrorists win.

The Boston Marathon this year will feature new security rules in response to last year’s bombing near the finish line.  No backpacks, no handbags, no strollers, no bulky clothing, no fluid containers over one liter, no large flags or signs, nothing at all larger than an average fanny pack.  Runners who want to have a change of clothing or other items at the finish line must put them in the clear plastic bags provided by the organizers, and then walk a half-mile after the race to retrieve them.  As for “unofficial participation” – a long-established tradition of sorts – well, it’s pretty hard to secure an entire 26.2-mile course through public thoroughfares,  but the Boston Athletic Association is planning to do their damnedest:  “Anyone on the course for any distance who has not been assigned, or is not displaying, an officially issued bib number from the B.A.A. is subject to interdiction.”

And all this in reaction to a couple of thugs who detonated two pressure-cooker bombs at last year’s Marathon.

Reaction is the problem.  Since 9/11, we have been closing a lot of barn doors after the horses have gone, and you can only do so much of that before you find yourself vainly trying to lock down everything in the entire country.  Thugs and criminals bent on hurting people are limited only by their own imaginations.  Law enforcement and security forces, however, are limited by manpower, by budgets, by legal constraints, by training and tactics and equipment.  Simply put, security can’t handle every single possible contingency everywhere all the time, not even within the confines of a one-day event like the Marathon.  When they try, as the BAA is currently doing, they do not guarantee 100% safety.  What they do is go to great trouble and expense to inconvenience the ordinary public and darken the atmosphere of a longstanding tradition.  This is security theateras Wikipedia summarizes,  “the practice of  investing in countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually achieve it…. Security theater has real monetary costs but by definition provides no security benefits, or the benefits are so minimal as to not be worth the cost.”

Security theater means the terrorists win.

This is the point at which some might ask:  So what are we supposed to do?  Nothing?  Just go around like normal, and let evil people wreak havoc upon us, and then just arrest them later?

Uh, almost.  Just go around like normal, but with a heightened public awareness and willingness to report our suspicions.  If havoc is nonetheless wrought, then yes, arrest the evildoers.

Have you noticed that we (and other countries)  have also suffered attacks in theaters and shopping malls and public marketplaces and squares?  Do we lock down those venues and introduce a lot of onerous security measures forever after?  No, we do not.  Why?  Because to do so would be nearly impossible, and would utterly destroy the usefulness of those venues.  No business owner would allow such a thing, and the public would never put up with it.

So what’s the difference between a shopping mall and the Boston Marathon?  Why is the Marathon more worthy of inconvenient security than Times Square or a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado?

It’s not.

It’s time for America to stop reacting so specifically to every thuggish attack, and take back the freedom to enjoy simple pleasures like cheering our friends on the sidelines of a marathon with a big thermos of hot coffee, and a backpack full of Twinkies and our friends’ extra clothing, if that’s what we want to do.  When we have arrived at such a fearful state that we can’t do that anymore, well – we’re not really America, are we?


Related article:  The Age of Fear and What to Do About the Next Boston Marathon (16 April 2013)