A Lesson in Terror at a Labor Day Parade

A new kind of vehicle in law enforcement showed me that we are no longer insulated from terror by anonymity.  I took my family to our downtown Labor Day parade, and after it was over, we spotted a bright green fire truck parked in a shopping center along the parade route.  It was a bit unusual in that it had no sign of pumps or hoses, and it had what looked like a pair of tall telescoping antennae.  The side of the truck designated it as a "crisis management center" for our regional airport district.  Having young kids, my first thought was that it was on display for kids to see, so we marched right up to the stairs.

The three men inside were very friendly and invited us in.  Trailing behind, I found the inside was an office full of video displays and I wondered to myself why they would need a crisis management center at a small regional airport.  We were about to leave when one of the men offered to explain the monitors.  He pointed out how the truck was equipped with elevated cameras (what I thought were antennae) that could monitor the entire area and zoom in on things hundreds of feet away.  For example, if someone called them about someone suspicious carrying a backpack, they could quickly spot them and record them on camera.  He said, "Right now our focus is on data collection."  He told us that they were saving all the video they recorded in case later someone would want to refer to it.

I asked, "You mean in case something like Boston happens again?"  He  said exactly.  He described how lucky it was that a store just happened to install a camera there before the incident, so a truck like this would make sure that if someone did something like that again, they would be caught on camera.

As we left, it disturbed me to realize that our local authorities saw an act of terror likely to strike even in our little-known community.  Even more disturbing was the strategy being used to deal with it.  A camera cannot stop an act of terror, it can only catch the terrorist after the deed is done.  Cameras might deter a conventional criminal, but they will likely encourage an Islamic terrorist.  For those who feel it a privilege to kill and be killed for Allah, more cameras mean greater recognition for their handiwork.

I commend the local authorities for their vigilance, but if we are truly to prevent acts of terror, this alone is not the way.  The Boston Marathon bombing did not prove the success of surveillance cameras.  It proved the failure of American intelligence agencies to follow up on legitimate warnings to prevent an act of terror.  The Tsarnaev brothers were known to be active with terror groups well in advance of the bombing, yet nothing was done to stop them.

What if, instead of a camera in Boston, there was an FBI agent who had intercepted these men before the bomb was planted?  You may recall in the waning years of the Bush administration various headlines of foiled terror plots.  These didn't come about by surveillance cameras.  These came about because our intelligence agencies actively sought out those who would most likely commit acts of terror, and they set them up for failure before they had a chance to succeed.  The sooner we return to that approach, the sooner we will all feel safer in our communities.

A new kind of vehicle in law enforcement showed me that we are no longer insulated from terror by anonymity.  I took my family to our downtown Labor Day parade, and after it was over, we spotted a bright green fire truck parked in a shopping center along the parade route.  It was a bit unusual in that it had no sign of pumps or hoses, and it had what looked like a pair of tall telescoping antennae.  The side of the truck designated it as a "crisis management center" for our regional airport district.  Having young kids, my first thought was that it was on display for kids to see, so we marched right up to the stairs.

The three men inside were very friendly and invited us in.  Trailing behind, I found the inside was an office full of video displays and I wondered to myself why they would need a crisis management center at a small regional airport.  We were about to leave when one of the men offered to explain the monitors.  He pointed out how the truck was equipped with elevated cameras (what I thought were antennae) that could monitor the entire area and zoom in on things hundreds of feet away.  For example, if someone called them about someone suspicious carrying a backpack, they could quickly spot them and record them on camera.  He said, "Right now our focus is on data collection."  He told us that they were saving all the video they recorded in case later someone would want to refer to it.

I asked, "You mean in case something like Boston happens again?"  He  said exactly.  He described how lucky it was that a store just happened to install a camera there before the incident, so a truck like this would make sure that if someone did something like that again, they would be caught on camera.

As we left, it disturbed me to realize that our local authorities saw an act of terror likely to strike even in our little-known community.  Even more disturbing was the strategy being used to deal with it.  A camera cannot stop an act of terror, it can only catch the terrorist after the deed is done.  Cameras might deter a conventional criminal, but they will likely encourage an Islamic terrorist.  For those who feel it a privilege to kill and be killed for Allah, more cameras mean greater recognition for their handiwork.

I commend the local authorities for their vigilance, but if we are truly to prevent acts of terror, this alone is not the way.  The Boston Marathon bombing did not prove the success of surveillance cameras.  It proved the failure of American intelligence agencies to follow up on legitimate warnings to prevent an act of terror.  The Tsarnaev brothers were known to be active with terror groups well in advance of the bombing, yet nothing was done to stop them.

What if, instead of a camera in Boston, there was an FBI agent who had intercepted these men before the bomb was planted?  You may recall in the waning years of the Bush administration various headlines of foiled terror plots.  These didn't come about by surveillance cameras.  These came about because our intelligence agencies actively sought out those who would most likely commit acts of terror, and they set them up for failure before they had a chance to succeed.  The sooner we return to that approach, the sooner we will all feel safer in our communities.