What a difference a decade has made in the nation's fight against terrorism. It's impossible to find "silver linings" in an event that killed three, including an eight-year-old boy, and wounded over 175 people. But it's true nevertheless that the government's response so far to the twin bombings at the Boston Marathon yesterday has been nothing short of remarkable, and little of it could have happened before September 11. "We now have an array of capacities that we simply didn't have before," says R. P. Eddy, a former director of the White House National Security Council who has advised New York's police department. "Our response to this attack—individually, and at the local, state, and federal level—is totally different."
To begin with, we now have a clearly understood organization chart. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush issued an order putting the FBI in charge of investigating domestic terrorism. Today, there are 103 Joint Terrorism Task Forces linking local and state police officers to federal terrorism investigators, including at least one in each of the FBI's 56 field offices; 71 were established after September 11. The JTTF in Boston is currently sifting through the tips that have poured into the 5,000-member police department. "We've invested heavily in expanding the number and capabilities of these vital nodes in our national counterterrorism network," says Tim Connors, who served as an army officer in Afghanistan and now trains police officers for CAAS LLC, a New York–based consulting firm.
A decade ago, too, the National Counterterrorism Center, which analyzes and integrates terrorism-related intelligence information for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), didn't exist. Neither, for that matter, did the ODNI itself, the designated coordinator of the nation's 17 intelligence agencies. The 9/11 Commission blamed the absence of such organizations for the failure to share information across law-enforcement and intelligence agencies and to "connect the dots" that might have prevented the destruction of the World Trade Center.
And a decade ago, there would have been far fewer high-definition cameras at the site. While photo surveillance couldn't prevent the bombings, it may help investigators identify the perpetrators. The NYPD, whose counterterrorism programs are widely considered the nation's gold standard, has invested heavily in such electronic capacity: the city's new network of 2,000 (and eventually 3,000) sophisticated security cameras, which feed information into a central monitoring system, has already helped police thwart some 17 terrorist attacks since 9/11 and detect a wide range of suspicious or unlawful activity.
Local and state first responders in Boston knew exactly what to do, thanks partly to the hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of training provided by the Department of Homeland Security. Panic "comes from unawareness," says Eddy. "Knowing how to put one foot in front of the other reduces anxiety." Juliette Kayyem, who worked as President Obama's assistant secretary for Homeland Security, agreed. "Did we respond better?" she told CNN. "The answer is yes."
The DHS—which government waste-watchers love to hate, often for good reason—financed not only training but also some of the stretchers, drugs, communications, emergency-response equipment, SWAT vehicles, and even police cars that responded to the bombing yesterday. Dozens of different agencies deployed people and capabilities that saved lives and may help solve this crime. The Navy, for instance, sent one of its two bomb-disposal units to help local authorities search for other explosives and defuse them. Forensics expertise has also dramatically improved. American military and law-enforcement agencies have developed a far better understanding of bomb "signatures"—the type of explosive used, the construction of the device, and how it was detonated. Such information has previously helped identify not only where bomb components were obtained but the identity of the bomb's maker.
Of course, homeland-security dollars could have been spent more wisely and efficiently. An avalanche of studies by private experts, the Government Accountability Office, and other publicly funded groups agree that millions, perhaps billions, have been wasted battling terrorism. Debate continues about the wisdom of creating the DHS, a behemoth that combines 22 federal departments and agencies and 240,000 employees into a supposedly unified, cabinet-level entity. Most critics say that its many parts have never been seamlessly or even adequately integrated. Such critics as John Mueller of Ohio State University and Mark Stewart of the University of Newcastle in Australia say that the return on investment simply can't justify the $1 trillion that the nation has spent on homeland defense since 9/11. The government hasn't even attempted to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of such spending, they complain.
But as yesterday's carnage reminds us, the cost of a terrorist attack can't be measured solely in dollars and cents. And no matter how much we spend, we won't be able to prevent every terrorist attack. Stephen Flynn, codirector of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University, warns that smaller-scale attacks like this one will be hard to detect; the best way to discourage terrorists from launching them, he argues, is to respond effectively to them, especially at the local level. In the war on terrorism, Flynn says, "resilience counts."