The Right Response to Boston


The Right Response to Boston

Apr 19th, 2013 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Say what you will about the Red Sox, the Bruins, or Boston politicians, the city’s people sure know how to respond to an act of terror. There are textbooks on how to respond to attacks at large public events like the Boston Marathon, and what happened in Massachusetts — from the first response to the investigation to the pursuit of the perpetrators — is strictly by the book.

As a result, it looks like federal, state, and local authorities did the right things, and they did them without shredding the Constitution, going all “Chicken Little,” or making a bad situation worse.

What went right didn’t happen by accident. All the good parts of the response were the product of more than a decade’s worth of rethinking and practicing homeland-security procedures. Key to this reimagining of our national-security enterprise was the formation of a cooperative, collaborative team out of agencies that before 9/11 often regarded each other as rivals.

When FBI director Robert Mueller said he was going to remold the bureau into a terrorist-fighting organization, he meant it. The bureau went from having a handful of Joint Terrorism Task Forces to over 100. It built out an international network of legal attachés (“legats”) who coordinate with law enforcement around the world. Major cities, including Boston, got into the business of intelligence analysis and information sharing with the FBI and other state and local law-enforcement agencies. They planned and trained with other responders and coordinated their work with other communities.

As a result, on the day of the marathon, the “after the attack” response went very well, and it’s what we should expect in the wake of future attacks of this nature.

But this is not to say that all is well with our homeland security. There are still plenty of remnants of the post-9/11 knee-jerk responses that made no sense. Silly, “feel good” security measures that serve no purpose are still out there, such as Washington’s ridiculous mandate to scan every container shipped to the United States.

Checkbook security abounds as well. For example, the federal government hands out many millions of dollars every year to small fire departments in security grants, when research shows they have little or no impact on public safety. The 9/11 Commission condemned such approaches as “pork-barrel” security, but politicians are loath to give them up.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Washington opened the spigots, pouring “security grants” into the states. Most of that money could have been better spent elsewhere — e.g., the U.S. Coast Guard, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is sailing ships old enough to collect Social Security, but Washington has preferred to hand out checks to local officials. 

Now, after a decade-long spending binge, the cash flow is coming to an end and there isn’t much to show for it. What has and will continue to endure, though, are efforts to get federal, state, and local officials to pull together in time of crisis rather than row in their own directions.

Perhaps even more important than the responses to attacks, public-safety forces have done a solid job of making the U.S. a harder target for terrorists. The list of attempted attacks that have been thwarted on U.S. soil since 9/11 now numbers more than 50.

As the investigation into what happened in Boston continues, officials may well find old clues that should have tipped off authorities to move against the terrorists before they attacked. (Think of the shootings at Fort Hood.) If there gaps or mistakes are uncovered, law enforcement can and should learn from them. But we should not give in to the urge to do “something” – rewire the system, re-open the pipeline of homeland-security grants, persecute some group, or shave off another civil liberty.

Instead, America should take its cue from the people of Boston: Keep calm and carry on.

— James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner."