Boston Marathon Bombings: The System is Working

I was in Boston this weekend for family stuff.  I left Sunday morning, the lobby of my hotel was full of people getting ready for the marathon.  I came in from my morning run. (Several times I week I run about three miles and eat cookies.)  The real runners looked me over, friendly, but appraising.  I waved and told them I’m just a casual runner, “I couldn’t run a marathon – I get tired driving 26.2 miles.”

I flew to LA on a United Airlines flight just before 9/11.  My family and I could easily have been on one of the flights – but we scheduled our trip around the Jewish New Year.  So being Jewish might have saved my life…

The sniper was in my neighborhood and I was on Capitol Hill on anthrax day.

Maybe I am the root cause of terrorism?

But seriously folks, what is to be made of the bombing in Boston?

First, little is really known.  We have two Chechen brothers, one alive and one dead who apparently had lived in the United States for about a decade.  Their specific motivations and path to violence are not known although there are certainly suggestions of links to radical Islam.  The extent of their contacts abroad is unknown at this point.

This is the nightmare scenario that counter-terror experts have been worried about for some time – the lone wolves and self-starter terrorists that simply cannot be detected before they carry-out their mayhem.  As always, my instinct is to ask – particularly considering the plethora of targets and relative ease of carry out operations: why haven’t we seen more of these kinds of attack?

William Saletan at Slate points out that there have been about 20 bombing attempts since 9/11 but for various reasons none of them worked out.  Some of this was luck, other was good law enforcement.  Saletan may underplay that bomb-making is not for amateurs.  In Iraq and Afghanistan where there are communities of bomb-makers in touch with one another and sharing information and experimenting they get pretty good at it.  But individuals, without special training, face a steep learning curve.  Still, sooner or later someone was bound to get it right.

We have also faced many shooting attacks by terrorists, but here again, considering the ease of such attacks it is surprising that there are not a great deal more of them.  The exemplary Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out that quite simply that radical causes simply are not attracting that much support, thus limiting how many threats we face.

So what do we do?

Policy options are limited.

Chechen Connection
We don’t know if there is a live connection between the brothers and Chechnya, but even if there is we want to think carefully about getting involved in Chechnya.  A lot of people are going to claim to be experts on Chechnya in the near future.  Some of them might now something.  I am not one of them, but I know it is a complicated place with an unfamiliar culture and a complex local power dynamics.  It is also a world center for smuggling.  Maybe the US should have been helping to mitigate Russia’s heavy-handed tactics there over a decade ago – but that is water under the bridge now.  That also raises another point, which anything big we want to do vis-a-vis Chechnya involves Russia.  What are we prepared to give them and what issue are we prepared to drop from the agenda if we add Chechen issues?

Intelligence Options
It appears one of the perpetrators was into Islamist videos.  Could the radicalization process have been detected beforehand?  Maybe, but that would involve a pretty deep intelligence apparatus monitoring a great deal of activity, followed up by investigations.  Such work yields lots of false positives which are very expensive (financially and also socially – people’s lives can be ruined.)  DO we want that kind of monitoring – lots of people watch disturbing videos online, do we want a government monitoring this?

There may be some inside baseball moves.  Intelligence assets will be re-deployed, hopefully some targets will be hardened, and lessons will be learned.  But I for one am leery of a major national initiative because that would involve the President.  The things that reach the President’s desk should be problems that only POTUS can address.  Right now the appropriate agencies are responding appropriately.  We should take some pride and comfort in that – plenty of countries don’t have that luxury.

Tipping Points
As awful as the Boston Marathon Bombing was, and it was a tragedy, a handful of serious terror attacks on US soil over the past decade may be an indication that things are going pretty well.  Annually the US loses 15000 people to homicide, 30000 to auto accidents, and another 30000 to suicide.

Deaths from terrorist attacks are not the same those in accidents.  Terrorists seek to undermine legitimate authority and terrorist violence has a particular resonance.  But the level of terrorist violence seen in the US since 9/11 is not remotely close to undermining our society.  By comparison on the day of the Marathon bombing, 32 people were killed in Iraq.

There is a point at which large scale reactions are needed – after 9/11 or after Oklahoma City for example.  But right now Americans can take comfort in the fact that while every single bad thing is not preventable we are blessed with trained capable professionals who can mitigate the damage and track down the perpetrators and a civilian population that readily supports their professionals in every way possible.

If the Marathon Bombing was the first in a wave, stronger responses may be necessary.  But for now, I’ll sign off by citing my friend BJ Tucker who cites the ultimate slogan for resiliency: Keep Calm and Carry On.

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