On the Other Side of Terror’s Boom

Police officers and emergency medical workers in London on Saturday night. Credit Daniel Sorabji/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The terror attack in London on Saturday night — the third in as many months, the second in as many weeks — demonstrated the persistence of the threat we face and the ease with which terrorists can carry out their schemes. Three men, with nothing more than a rental van, knives and fake bomb vests intended to keep both regular citizens and law enforcement at bay, killed at least seven and wounded a couple dozen more. This was a terrifying event for which ISIS has now claimed responsibility, but it was a hardly sophisticated act: a vehicle, some knives and ruthless determination.

Prime Minister Theresa May was hardly coy in her response. Claiming that “enough is enough,” May signaled that greater powers were needed to prevent these attacks from happening in the future. Her words placed specific blame on an Islamic community she felt had not done enough to minimize radicalization and the social media platforms that too easily allow radicalization to occur. The policies that will follow will inevitably focus on expanding efforts to prevent terror from occurring, mainly in the areas of detention and surveillance.

Combined with President Trump’s tweets blaming some vague but somehow effective notion of political correctness as the reason terrorists can’t be stopped, the two leaders both reverted to an exclusive focus on what is called in the crisis management lexicon “left of boom.” The measure of success, in other words, is simply whether or not an attack happened. It’s a simple metric, and surely one that terror organizations want us to adopt. It is a calculation weighted in their favor. Any attack, no matter how successful, is a victory for them and a defeat for us.

But it is the other side of that spectrum — “right of boom” — where nations must also begin to define victory, especially in an age when we can’t prevent every attack no matter how much we would like to. We can still succeed, however, by making these attacks less effective and therefore less scary. While governments are already focusing on both sides of the boom, prevention takes too much of the spotlight from the more familiar, and often rote, activities of first responders.

The measure of success in counterterrorism efforts is not simply whether an attack occurred or not. Another measure must be whether fewer people died or were harmed because of the actions of police, fire fighters, emergency managers, public health officials and the voluntary efforts of the public. Based on that standard, was the Boston Marathon attack a success? Yes, from the viewpoint of the terrorists. But only three people died at the finish line; not a single person of the 100s taken to area and out-of-state hospitals was lost because of the quick reaction of those on the ground. Success, in some ways, from the viewpoint of the city and country.

“Right of boom” policies are not merely luck; they are the product of sophisticated planning and heeding the lessons learned from previous attacks. Many of those lessons were implemented on Saturday night. The coordinated attacks in Paris in 2015 showed that authorities needed to more effectively communicate with citizens about ongoing attacks; the quick notifications by the Metropolitan Police Saturday night informed the public of a dangerous situation and urged them to get to safety. The 2016 Orlando Pulse attack, after which distraught family members spent hours looking for those who may have been in the bar, forced a new emphasis on the importance of family unification; almost immediately, London police directed those who had been out that night to contact family and friends so that they would not place unnecessary burdens on public safety. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attack, when the identity of the assailants was unknown, investigators sought pictures and videos from the public to try to piece together who had placed the explosive backpacks at the finish line; within a few hours, London officials were crowdsourcing the investigation, providing instructions to the public on how to upload photos of the scene to a secure website.

Challenges remain, but each event provides valuable insights to prepare for the next event. Any successful terror attack is going to elicit fear, but fear is intensified when the consequences of the attack are not minimized and managed effectively. Admittedly, right of boom planning can seem defeatist or less aggressive than saying that we will stop all the terrorists. It shouldn’t.

Prime Minister May will need to answer questions about how her austerity planning as Home Secretary in David Cameron’s government reduced police presence on the streets. In the United States, those response capacities are also at risk as the Department of Justice takes aim at cities that provide sanctuary to unlawful immigrants. The Trump Administration is seeking to limit first responder monetary support to mayors who support safe-havens. Whatever you think of the policy of sanctuary cities, it will be irrelevant at the panicked moment when you are looking for your daughter or husband after an attack.

The scale of the problems we continue to face from terrorism — like the strategic question of how to eradicate violent extremism over time or the tactical question of how to stop a van on a busy road from plowing down pedestrians on any given weekend night — will require coordinated diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, military and first responder efforts. And it will require communities to expose radicalization in their midst and companies to limit the spreading of hate on their platforms.

Right of boom planning is no more fatalistic than aggressively treating the growth of a cancer cell or building a sea wall as the oceans rise. They are all an acknowledgment that the harm has happened, but that we ought to try to command the depth of the loss. Our efforts to stop all bad things from happening — noble in theory, unrealistic in practice — must always be mirrored by our efforts to respond successfully and learn to do better the next time. Because there will be a next time. And our success will be judged by how well we prepared for the other side of the boom.

Juliette Kayyem is a former assistant secretary of homeland security at the Department of Justice, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland.

Deja un comentario

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *