I love to run. I have been running regularly since 1996. I ran yesterday, and I hope to run this evening after work. In those 17 years, I never dreamed of an attack like the one that occurred Monday in Boston near the finish line of the marathon. As I type this, we know of 3 deaths and over 150 injuries, including several dozen severe ones. They all make me feel a little sick.
Significant terrorist strikes in the U.S. go back about 20 years now, to the first World Trade Center bombing (remember that one?) and then the Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Olympics. The Atlanta bombing, at least on initial impressions, seems to bear the closest resemblance to what happened Monday in Boston. In that case, the bomb was actually discovered before detonation, and the actions of a security guard (later falsely accused of planting the bomb, then cleared) reduced the death and injury toll significantly.
The key to any terrorist attack is to strike fear into a population that is greatly disproportionate to the harm inflicted, or to the potential harm of a future attack. In response to this fear, leaders are under incredible pressure to do something.
This leads to a concept widely referred to as “security theater.” Actions are taken to attempt to reassure lawful society that the good guys are in control and the bad guys are not. There are several major problems with this: (1) no one is actually any safer for these actions; (2) it increases tensions rather than lessening them; and (3) devoting limited public resources creates an incredible opportunity cost.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school killings, my school district (Montgomery County, Maryland) and many others placed uniformed police officers at many schools. While intending to promote safety and calm, many commented that it was unnerving to pre-adolescent children to see armed police officers patrolling the hallways of their school. Of course, a short time later, the police officers were removed from the schools. Having solved the problem of elementary school shootings, the security theater producers have moved on to solving the next great societal danger.
Have we already forgotten the folly of Homeland Security alerts (“Code Orange”) and directives to stock up on duct tape? Does anyone remember anthrax attacks (real and imagined)?
The real human costs of time, energy and money expended by the TSA airport security have weighed heavily on the public in the last decade. From adding security fees on to the price of tickets, to pushing more people away from airports and on to the roads (a much, much more dangerous form of travel) can anyone honestly say the expense has been worth it?
This Sunday my running club hosts one of the premier local running events of the year. They have already informed members and other runners that there will be “additional police presence and security measures” at the race, and thanked us for our patience and understanding. I would note that the Boston bombs detonated in the presence of numerous video surveillance cameras and within yards of dozens of uniformed police officers. The Atlanta bombing occurred likewise in the midst of a mini police-state. If anyone thinks the presence of a few dozen (heck, a few hundred) of Montgomery County’s finest will actually make anything at this race safer, they are kidding themselves. Better to spend the thousands of dollars having them actually doing what they were trained to do: enforcing the law and helping the public in ways that actually matter.
The better course? As the Brits (and Atlantic Magazine) would say, “Keep calm and carry on.” Go running today. Go to work, then go home. Go race on Sunday. While there is always a need for due care, flushing resources down the toilet and surrendering our personal freedoms and privacy in the name of pursuing an unattainable level of safety is a choice, not an obligation.
Let’s choose differently this time.
I love to run. I have been running regularly since 1996. I ran yesterday, and I hope...