The Boston Marathon: Generalized Surveillance Fails To Thwart Attack

Headline updated [x2].

Today, by the finish line of the Boston Marathon, on the same city block as the church I go to, two bombs went off. I feel shocked and sad beyond belief.


Photo credit: KVLY
Photo credit: KVLY.

My thoughts and prayers are with those who died or were hurt, with their families, and with all the people stranded in Boston on this cold night.

The former district attorney of Middlesex County, Gerry Leone, has taken to the airwaves to talk about how great the efforts have been before this attack to get a Joint Terrorism Task Force going, how well it has been working together, how smooth the state and federal collaboration has been, and how the appropriate response will be to increase random surveillance. Governor Patrick has also echoed his perspective, talking about the need for increased vigilance and random bag searches on the MBTA, which we have covered, and opposed, before.

It won’t surprise regular readers to know that my perspective on this is a little different and more skeptical. Even while massively and systematically abusing the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement wasn’t able to prevent this attack. The amount of data collected through warrantless electronic means by the centers Leone is talking about has been vast, and none of it, none of it, has thwarted a terrorist attack. Now, once again, they have failed us all.

In this context of having failed, they don’t get to demand even greater powers to snoop into people’s lives. They don’t get to pretend that this attack wouldn’t have happened if only they had surveilled us more. It will turn out that even looser practices on surveillance will have done nothing to help prevent this terrible attack. Before we decide that the best way to prevent further attacks is to keep doing the same thing, and keep abusing people’s ordinary constitutional liberties, I want to propose a different and better course of action.

It’s natural to feel that there’s something we could have done. It may even be that they couldn’t have thwarted it, and that the whole notion of thwarting attacks ahead of time is an illusion. But they have certainly talked a good game as if they could, if we only gave up enough of our liberties and poured enough money into it. You heard it from former DA Leone himself: the fusion centers and the joint terrorism task force and state and federal law enforcement were collecting all the information they were told to collect, and in fact far more information than the Constitution allows. Law enforcement has not only routinely infiltrated violent fundamentalist Muslim groups, but also a whole constellation of groups that have never yet been known to organize violence. It isn’t working. We would be foolish to suppose that doing yet more of the same, yet more intensely, will prevent another attack. Law enforcement doesn’t have a problem with lack of information; they’re drowning in it. They already gather more information than even the largest police force in the world could reasonably process or understand.

I grew up in a country that during my childhood suffered regular terrorist attacks like this one. No attack was like the last. If you had asked people ahead of the Boston Marathon whether it was likely it would be the target of an attack, who would have said yes? Further back, who was contemplating ahead of time that terrorists would fly planes into buildings? Definite patterns emerge, if they emerge, in retrospect. Gathering more information may not in fact be the key. Like the TV news’ security consultant Todd McGee is saying, “The See Something, Say Something campaign is a great campaign, but how do people know what they’re looking for?”


Instead, we should try something we haven’t tried for a while. We should try judicious, Fourth Amendment-compliant law enforcement. We should focus on actually violent groups and their members, and knock off trying to also monitor the communications of people who merely peacefully sympathize with violent groups or of groups that dissent from the status quo without violence. The police and the FBI have better things to do than to listen in on you and me. Let them focus on what matters, and do focused policing relating to actual crime.

Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t. But what we’re doing right now is not working for the people of Boston. It’s time for a change.

UPDATE 1: Well done to Farah Stockman of the Boston Globe, who hits the nail on the head with this morning’s article:

One thing Obama didn’t promise was to make sure this never happens again.

Because it’s impossible.

“As much security as there was,” [marathoner Bill] Morgan said. “I don’t think it’s preventable.”

We can be vigilant. We can be smart. But we can’t bring the risk of a terrorist attack down to zero. We’d have to give up too much to do that. We’d have to become a police state. And even that would not be enough. If we are willing to die in wars to protect our freedom, we must be willing to die right here in Boston. It was surreal to see half the city conducting business as usual. But there was something inspiring and stubborn about it. Tomorrow, this city is going to get up and live its life. We are not going to let anyone stop us.

UPDATE 2: It’s worth making clear that I think that the emergency services, police included, have been doing everything they should do to help people after the attack, and bless them for it. It’s the arrogant notion of preventive policing via universal surveillance that I oppose, not the hard work that really helps people on the ground.

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