A few days after the Boston bomb blast, out of the two suspects identified, one has been killed and the other captured, thanks largely to the overwhelming public response with cellphone and camera video and still pictures. What lessons can we take away from this attack and the response to it?
Apart from the fact that no country can ensure 100% security against such attacks, the Boston bombings do show that public participation, national resilience, and good police work can make it difficult for culprits to get away and thus raise the costs of future attempts.
When the United States was hit by the September 2001 terror attacks, it was the first major attack on the nation since Pearl Harbor. The shock led to considerable public hysteria and to responses like, “Why do they hate us?” (that led to books like Samuel Phillips Huntington’s flawed Clash of Civilizations becoming a bestseller that was sold at airports). America has come a long way since then. Like other nations that have faced significant terrorist incidents—India, the United Kingdom, and Spain—we have seen the development of national resilience against such violent attacks. What is different in the American case is that the full weight and effectiveness of the American state was brought in to combat terrorism. This ranged from intelligence efforts by the CIA and FBI to the US Treasury making it difficult for terrorist funds to flow effortlessly across borders—hawala transactions being the first target of these financial efforts.
Further, American first responders—police, healthcare workers, fire fighters—are now well trained to cope with such contingencies. One saw this in the case of Boston where emergency medical teams did a good job of providing triage at the blast sites and then quickly moving casualties to the appropriate hospitals.
The other thing that has come from living with 12 years of terrorism is an American public that now knows how to respond to such attacks. Aided by the proliferation of modern technology, particularly cellphone cameras, the Boston police and federal law enforcement authorities were able to comb through over 25,000 hours of amateur video footage to find important evidence.
What lessons then can one draw from this attack? First, training and preparation matter. Getting the police and first responders to actively practice for a range of contingencies from straight forward attacks to chemical or biological events is extremely important. This is not just in terms of getting police squads to engage terrorists but having hospitals and other emergency facilities be well prepared to deal with future crises. These would include having adequate supplies of medical equipment, blood, and drugs on hand.
Second, in India, private companies and businesses have to be encouraged to develop surveillance in their neighborhoods for, unlike the government owned surveillance equipment; it would be maintained and kept in readiness.
Third, the Indian public needs a public awareness campaign on how to react in such emergencies. Asking people to not pick up strange packages is not enough. The Indian government has to set up 24 hour call centers in the major Indian cities that can take emergency calls from the concerned public and can provide information on available hospitals and other secure facilities.
There also has to a seamless way for the police and law enforcement agencies to access the resources that the Indian public has to offer. Indian law enforcement does not encourage the public sharing of knowledge and does not have the capabilities to, for instance, go through 25,000 hours of video. Yet in a country like India such resources will soon be available from the general public and it would be a shame to waste such a valuable input.
In this context a partnership between the Indian IT industry and the government would be particularly useful. The IT industry has not done enough to make itself into an agent for social change in India but it can certainly be used to become an agent for national security in the country. Young Indian IT professionals are among the most creative people in the world and asking them to come up with solutions for involving the public and improving anti-terrorist capabilities would lead to some interesting solutions being proposed. In the long run, terrorism can only be successfully challenged by an effective public/government partnership. Boston provides a good example of this phenomenon.
These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Air Force or the US Department of Defense.