The Way Things Are

While the smoke has all but cleared in the aftermath of last week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, what is left is a picture that is anything but clear. Although the bombers, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, have been killed and captured respectively, it still is unknown if they acted alone or as part of a larger conspiracy. As of this writing, Dzhokhar has reportedly awakened and is responding to investigators’ questions in writing. And while this may lead to new developments going forward, there is enough to address based on what we already know.

While the Islamic fundamentalist angle being pushed to explain the attacks seems plausible given what we already know, it still is uncertain if the brothers acted alone, or were part of a larger terrorist sleeper cell. President Obama, however, having no apparent way to exploit this tragedy for political gain, unlike what he did with the Newtown massacre, tried to downplay this angle. In a statement delivered after Watertown police apprehended the 19-year-old Tsarnaev, Obama said, “[The] American spirit includes staying true to the unity and diversity that makes us strong — like no other nation in the world. …there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right…that’s why we take care not to rush to judgment — not about the motivations of … entire groups of people.”

The president has urged Americans not to jump to conclusions in the past, after attacks on American soil with apparent terrorist intent. For example, he spoke strongly in 2009, after Major Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas. Obama then said, “We don’t know all the answers yet and I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts.” The Defense Department, in a controversial move, later classified that shooting as “workplace violence.” In light of recent events, some, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have called for the reclassification of that as a terrorist attack. He told CBS’s Bob Scheiffer, “The reality is whether we want to call this a war on terror; they call this a war on us,” and both the Fort Hood shooting and the Boston Bombing are clearly terroristic acts. Considering that The New York Times reported (as confirmed by the FBI) that the bombers told the owner of the car they hijacked that they were heading to New York, and that Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said that the evidence points to the conclusion that they were planning more attacks, it seems fair to classify this as terror.

The more recent revelations make clear a simple truth that cannot be denied: We cannot legislate our way to safety. Late Sunday night, Cambridge Police spokesman Dan Riviello confirmed to Reuters that “There is no record of [Tsarnaev] having a license to carry [a firearm].” This, coming on the heels of Obama’s high-profile backing of a gun control measure (which was ultimately defeated) that would have increased background checks on gun sales, in the name of saving lives, makes it clear that laws alone are not the answer. And with the imminent-danger chapter of this story apparently behind us, there is no time like the present to discuss what the answer actually is to the question on everyone’s mind now: How can America stay safe in face of an emerging terrorist threat?

The Boston Police Department’s decision to lock down the city while hunting for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has come under fire from many different angles. Leaving the civil liberty questions on the side for now, the question becomes simply: Was it worth it, and can it be done again should the need arise? Bloomberg Business Week estimates that the lost-revenue portion of the cost of the lockdown for Boston businesses was between 250 and 333 million dollars. That number, while perhaps justifiable as a one-time occurrence, is unsustainable, would it need to be repeated. Were that the case, it would be an even clearer example of how the terrorists win, even when they lose.

The point of the cost of terrorism in our daily lives is illustrated in Super-Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner. They explain that although attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid wasn’t successful in his plot to kill people by igniting a bomb in his shoe aboard an airplane, the resulting policy, namely, making travelers remove their shoes before flying, has had more or less the same effect. They write, “It takes an average of one minute to remove and replace your shoes in the airport security line. In the United States alone, this procedure happens roughly 560 million times per year. Five hundred and sixty million minutes equals more than 1,065 years — which, divided by 77.8 years (the average U.S. life expectancy at birth) yields a total of nearly 14 person-lives. So even though Richard Reid failed to kill a single person, he levied a tax that is the time equivalent of 14 lives a year.” So how can we balance the need to keep the public safe, and the cost of same so that the terrorists don’t succeed even as they fail?

The simplest answer is that we have to understand this new reality. “If You See Something, Say Something” can’t just be a slogan; it must become a way of life. In Israel, for example, nobody would think of leaving a package unattended, because the populace lives with the reality that it will be called in and destroyed. Americans need to realize that it isn’t up to the government to protect them with new policies. Those won’t help. It is up to every individual to help make the new reality we live in safer, by being more vigilant and not giving others cause for unfounded concern. This will leave the lives we lead less disturbed by the invasion of terrorism.

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