Correction Appended: April 18, 2013
Terrorism is an unusual tactic in that in depends for its success on the response of the onlooker. If we are not terrorized, then, almost by definition, it didn’t work. The person or people who planned the Boston Marathon massacre were textbook terrorists. They chose a public event of great symbolism, one at which they knew there would be cameras and television crews. Their aim was not simply to kill a handful of people in Boston and maim others—it was also to frighten the rest of us.
On that latter count, so far they have not succeeded. I happened to be flying into Boston the afternoon of the attack. I had wi-fi on the plane and was reading the grim news while the aircraft was speeding toward Logan Airport. Then I learned that Boston had shut down its airspace, that Logan was closed and the plane would be diverted. I asked the flight attendant where we were headed. “Boston,” she replied with a puzzled look. I explained that I knew what was going on and that she could be honest with me. “Well,” she replied, “the captain has information too, and he tells me we’re landing in Boston.” In fact, we did land in Boston, delayed by only 10 minutes. The authorities had briefly shut down the airspace to assess the situation but then quickly reopened it.
That was a small metaphor for the way in which the Boston authorities handled the aftermath of the attack. They were careful to watch for signs of further attacks but then moved quickly to return the city to normal functioning—though, of course, in a deeper sense Boston will not be “normal” anytime soon. The governor, mayor and chief of police all sounded notes that were reassuring and calm, determined that the city would investigate the attack but also determined that it would allow its citizens to move forward. President Obama also struck a note that was sober, reacting firmly while not overreacting. For their part, Republicans behaved admirably, not seeking to politicize the moment.
Boston has a tough New England spirit, a puritan ethic that prizes doing one’s job and not making a fuss. (I spent seven years living in that beautiful city and was always struck by its strength of character.) But beyond Boston, we Americans might have finally come to realize that the most important counterterrorism program is resilience, demonstrating that a terrorist attack will not, well, terrorize us. Sept. 11 was a much larger attack, raising much larger concerns. Many of the things that followed—security measures, the overthrow of the Taliban—were proper and necessary. But many were not, like shutting down travel, denying visas and, of course, turning counterterrorism into an ever expanding “war on terror.” Osama bin Laden saw the rationale for 9/11 in precisely the reaction and overreaction it produced. In a video he released in October 2004, he said, “Al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost—according to the lowest estimate—more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars.”
Resilience is partly a matter of character, but it is also one of policy. Stephen Flynn, a scholar at Northeastern University who has written widely about this, argues that, despite the billions spent, we have never made it a priority. George W. Bush often explained, “We fight the terrorists overseas so that we don’t have to fight them here at home.” And indeed, the focus of policy in the Bush years was the fight abroad. At home we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a Department of Homeland Security that many experts agree is a disaster and should probably never have been created. And while al-Qaeda has diminished in strength, certainly in its ability to launch major attacks on military or symbolic targets, we remain unprepared for the most likely attacks, which are of the kind we saw in Boston.
In written testimony given last July to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Flynn predicted that “small attacks carried out by one to three operatives, particularly if they reside in the United States, can be carried out with little planning and on relatively short notice. As such, they are unlikely to attract the attention of the national intelligence community and the attacks, once underway, are almost impossible for the federal law enforcement community to stop.”
The steps we need to take are not sexy. We need to upgrade our transit systems and infrastructure so as to make them less vulnerable. For example, Flynn notes, “U.S. Navy has invested more in protecting the single port of San Diego that is home to the Pacific Fleet, than the Department of Homeland Security has invested in the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma combined, upon which the bulk of the U.S. economy relies.” We must strengthen public health rapid recovery in the event of a biological attack, perhaps the most worrying threat out there.
We need to make sure that the public understands the nature of these threats and how it can help identify and respond to them and above all not respond to them. Americans have little knowledge of the world beyond, and when bad things happen, we can react out of fear, emotion and anger. The people of Boston are helping us to chart a wiser course.
This story is part of TIME’s Boston bombing special tablet edition, available on iPad, Nook, Android and Kindle
The original version of this article misquoted Stephen Flynn as saying in written testimony that “small terror attacks carried out by one to three operatives, particularly if they live in the United States, are…almost impossible for the federal or local authorities to stop.” In fact, Flynn wrote that such attacks “once underway, are almost impossible for the federal law enforcement community to stop.”