Homegrown or foreign-directed, it was terrorism — a coordinated act meant to kill, maim, confuse and frighten at a major American event — that we saw at the Boston Marathon on Monday.
There are lessons here. They are not as explicit as they will become as we learn more; but it is clear no matter what that we are vulnerable and that vigilance remains crucial, which doesn’t mean we go into hiding.
We want our bold American lives to continue to be more celebratory than quivering, we don’t want to ban the excitement of a good Patriots Day race or surround every moment with cops. What we do want is to be prudent, cautious, careful, to understand that this 21st century is fraught with brands of peril in some ways different from what we knew before. And we must be prepared to make the harms that come our way less harmful than the evil intended.
In some ways, on top of the inspiring kindness of citizens toward each other, we saw evidence of such preparation in Boston — quick, smooth responses by local police, medical teams and others.
When you listened on TV to public spokespeople explain what was going on after two bombings, three deaths, more than 140 injuries, you felt — to the extent possible — comforted. You heard good sense being spoken, an avoidance of anything panicky, care not to come to premature conclusions and ironclad determination to capture the guilty.
Being ready for a disaster is a big part of what we need. There are dangers of biological and chemical and even nuclear terrorist attacks that we can never be assured we can stop, no matter what our military does abroad or how incredibly well our intelligence agents and police perform. Since 9/11, we have thwarted some murderous schemes, but then there was Fort Hood and now there is Boston, and we have to grasp the importance of containing the tragic possibilities.
That containment could be the difference between hundreds of lives lost and tens or even hundreds of thousands. At sessions on the terrorist threat sponsored by the Heritage Foundation in recent years, I’ve been convinced we’re moving forward but not fast enough and with too many hitches. One expert, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel named Randall Larsen, believes a major hit is inevitable, but that the answer is not to waltz in fear. It’s to act practically.
I’ve liked it that President Barack Obama has not practiced what he preached as a candidate in 2008. We still have indefinite detention, we still have Guantanamo, we still have the Patriot Act, we still may have tough interrogations of terrorists — if conducted by other countries. I myself think Obama has gone too far with drones, but I do think this president became another George W. Bush when he was in office for a very practical reason. He learned if he wasn’t, we could lose a city or two or three.
I have not been impressed by the responses to the tragic shootings we’ve had in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo. I am not against limited magazine capacity for firearms and background checks before their purchase, but I do not think these steps will do boo to prevent more killings. We have 300 million guns in this country and criminals don’t usually secure theirs legally. I think the answer of the National Rifle Association — to park a cop in every school — is also so much hot air. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why that would not work short of still more steps that would make schools facsimile fortresses, not an America I want.
One thing the Boston Marathon horror illustrates is that guns aren’t needed to attempt mass murders. In fact, the worst school massacre in U.S. history used explosives (in 1927, a farmer protested his tax burden by blowing up a school in rural Bath, Mich., killing 38 children and six adults). But the main thing the Boston bombs and killings illustrates is that terrorism is not at an end in America and that we must be ready for the worst even as we take preventive measures and aim to keep the best of our heritage intact.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. Email SpeaktoJay@aol.com.
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