As in Boston, Resilience Can Help the U.S. Defeat Terrorist Attacks

The Boston bombings highlight the lingering threat of terrorism—and why Americans possess the tools to overcome it
Photograph by David Fahrenthold/The Washington Post/Getty Images

For marathoners, the biggest thrill comes not from the cheering or the sweating or even the running itself, but from the finishing—the promise of food, family, and a hot shower. Many of the 23,000 runners competing in the 2013 Boston Marathon were just about to get that sense of elation as they made the turn onto Boylston Street and headed for the finish. They’d overcome the hills and cramps and pain. They had nothing more to fear. Kristen McGuinness, 37, was one block from the end when she heard an explosion. As smoke enveloped the runners, police rushed them off the course. McGuinness joined the crowds streaming away from Copley Square. Her husband and two children had been waiting at the finish line, but she never made it there. (The family was not hurt in the blast.) McGuinness saw a boy lying in the street, his legs severed, as well as three or four other bodies. “I screamed when I saw them. It will be with me forever,” she told Bloomberg News. The scene “was like a war zone.”

It’s been nearly a dozen years since Americans witnessed a mass terrorist attack on their own soil. The country has since endured its share of deadly calamities in the form of school shootings and natural disasters. On the scale of recent American tragedies, the loss of life in Boston was relatively low, but the sheer number of spectators with cell phone cameras, as well as journalists and video crews, magnified the event’s impact. The images of sidewalks smeared in blood and people running for their lives seemed conjured from another place and time—Madrid in 2004, or London in 2005, or Baghdad, or Damascus. Sudden, indiscriminate, and seemingly impossible to stop, the marathon bombings were reminders of the uniquely frightening power of terrorist violence.

Law enforcement officials say the bombs were built inside metal pressure cookers and packed with shrapnel, including nails and ball bearings, to maximize casualties. The bombs, carried in black nylon bags, were left in two locations along Boylston Street. In 2004 the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about the potential use of such a device in a terrorist attack, asserting that building pressure-cooker bombs was “commonly taught in Afghan terrorist training camps.” According to the warning, the bombs can be “made with readily available materials” and triggered with consumer electronic devices such as garage door openers or cell phones. Even so, at least some degree of skill is required to detonate a device, according to Fred Burton, former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. “It’s easy to screw up,” Burton told Bloomberg News. “Getting it right suggests the individual had some experience and had either practiced or received training.”

In the wake of the attack, it was inevitable that the nation would be told to expect more. Major cities went on high alert. New York bomb squad officers responded to reports of 77 suspicious packages in 24 hours, more than three times the usual number. (They found no bombs.) In echoes of 2001, letters sent to the White House and to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) tested positive for the poison ricin, although the FBI said there was no connection to the Boston blasts. “We are newly reminded that serious threats to our way of life remain,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Former CIA Director Michael Hayden warned that unsophisticated attacks carried out by “lone wolf” terrorists could become “the new normal.”

Calls for vigilance are justified, but paranoia isn’t. Although the timing and location of the marathon bombings were shocking, few Americans believed the U.S. could avoid another terrorist incident forever—despite McConnell’s assertion that “for many, the complacency that prevailed prior to Sept. 11 has actually returned.” The long lull between major attacks illustrates how effective the U.S.’s antiterrorism efforts have been in degrading the threat. Meanwhile, the swift response of emergency and medical personnel to the carnage, the methodical pace of the investigation, and the general sense of equanimity that prevailed in Boston reflect the value of preparation and experience. Despite the grievous harm caused, the events of April 15 reveal why America is a safer place than it was a decade ago.

The long war waged by the U.S. and its allies around the world has decimated al-Qaeda and eliminated most of its top leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Counterterrorism experts believe that al-Qaeda lacks the organizational capacity to mount another sophisticated, Sept. 11-style attack. Acts of terrorism against the U.S. are less likely to be committed by a global enterprise like al-Qaeda than by small numbers of “self-radicalized” domestic jihadists, far-right hate groups, anarchists, and radical environmentalists. Because they’re more diffuse, these potential perpetrators are also harder to identify and stop. “We know what to do with al-Qaeda,” says Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a senior associate in the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We understand this enemy. What we don’t understand nearly as well is what to do when Americans embrace a radical ideology that might lead them to commit violence.”

The dangers posed by such individuals should be kept in perspective. Since Sept. 11, 380 people have been indicted for plotting attacks inside the U.S., according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. Of that number, 77 were able to obtain materials for a bomb. Until Boston, only one, a white supremacist named Dennis Mahon who targeted a black city official in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a letter bomb in 2004, managed to make and detonate a device. Overall, the post-Sept. 11 era has been “the most tranquil period in terms of domestic terrorist violence since the 1960s,” says Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp. “During the 1970s we were dealing with 50 to 60 terrorist bombings [in the U.S.] a year. If we were dealing with that now, people would be going crazy.”

The decline in terrorist activity stems from multiple factors, ranging from more restrictive immigration policies to vast improvements in intelligence gathering. In some ways, the U.S.’s counterterrorism system is a victim of its success: The absence of attacks has heightened Washington’s obsession with preventing another one at any cost. The U.S. has spent at least $640 billion on homeland security measures in the years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The inescapable logic of counterterrorism is that such vast expenditures are capable of defending the country against Sept. 11-style hijackings, but they can’t do much to prevent two relatively crude devices from producing nearly 200 casualties in Boston.

The U.S. has been successful in reducing the threat of terrorism, but it has wildly overspent in a futile attempt to achieve the goal of eliminating it. “After 9/11 we put our national security apparatus on steroids and decided that we were going to try to stop another attack from ever taking place,” says Stephen Flynn, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, who has advised the government on homeland security issues. “But much less investment was made to increase our society’s ability to respond to such events.”

In an age of fiscal constraints, analysts such as Flynn advocate a shift from terrorism prevention to “resilience.” The smartest and most cost-effective way of handling the threat of terrorism is “to build our capacity to cope with it” when something terrible transpires. That means, for example, de-emphasizing costly Pentagon weapons systems and steering resources toward local police, health-care providers, and first responders like those who performed so brilliantly when the bombs went off on Patriot’s Day. The dispatch with which Boston’s emergency personnel handled the crisis, transporting dozens of injured people to triage tents and hospitals in minutes, undoubtedly limited the death toll. Such heroism was no accident. Several physicians had experience working in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the city has conducted simulated bombings to drill its first responders on how to react.

“The military value of terrorism is to cause disruption and to get maximum bang from an attack. But if you’re a terrorist and you have reason to believe it’s going to be a fizzle, it lowers your incentive to do it,” says Flynn. “Building resilience doesn’t solve the ‘nut’ problem. What it does is change the cost-benefit calculation of a terrorist or group of terrorists and lowers the value of engaging in terrorism on U.S. soil.”

Once the initial trauma has passed, the greatest danger of any terrorist attack is the temptation to overreact. Pouring more money into open-ended military campaigns or instituting costly new security measures won’t necessarily make the U.S. any safer than it is. The most resilient societies are those that manage to tolerate risk. Praising the citizens of Boston for their bravery and generosity, President Obama said, “The American people refuse to be terrorized.” Learning how to live with terrorism is the surest way to defeat it.

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