Boston Marathon Bombing Highlights Homeland Security Done Right

In the immediate aftermath of the blasts, several fundamental lessons were relearned.
June 2013

In the week between the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon and the surviving suspect’s arraignment in his hospital room, we saw how far homeland security has come since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The message is overwhelmingly good.

We saw tremendous bravery in the moments after the bombs exploded, as citizens and first responders raced toward the victims without regard to whether more bombs were primed to explode. Civilians applied tourniquets to prevent some of the wounded from bleeding to death. The field station, originally set up to treat chilled, dehydrated runners, quickly became a triage station. The city’s network of ambulances, police and hospitals responded magnificently, in large part because they had practiced over the years for just such a day.

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In the immediate aftermath of the blasts, we learned again the fundamental lessons: All homeland security events are local, beginning with local consequences that require local officials to respond. We learned that effective response depends on robust relationships among people who have learned to work together before events happen. And we learned that skilled, problem-focused improvisation can fill in the gaps.

Moreover, we’ve also learned again that good homeland security is intergovernmental, interagency, intersectoral -- and enlists ordinary Americans. While the FBI managed the scene, it was a regional Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority SWAT team that took the suspect down. The first photos of the captured suspect showed federal tactical officers wearing FBI and ATF gear. And don’t forget, during the manhunt for the suspect, it was a citizen who found him hiding in a boat. Citizens often worked the front lines, making “Boston Strong” more than a T-shirt message and demonstrating that “if you see something, say something” is far more than a cliché.

The very same week of the alleged bomber’s arraignment, the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center recalled these same balance-of-responsibility questions. In the center’s Decision Points Theater, visitors are asked to relive one of four big moments from the Bush presidency. Listening to briefings from former White House chiefs of staff, participants are immersed in the events as they unfold. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, for example, they’re asked what should President Bush do -- deploy federal troops or rely on local forces?

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The contrast between Boston’s lessons and the theater’s questions could not be bigger. The Bush administration’s initial response to Katrina was anything but successful, with citizens stuck at the Superdome and political support crumbling. During Katrina, the questions about who was in charge and whether to deploy federal troops or rely on local forces preoccupied the Bush White House. In Boston, we learned yet again that this is precisely the wrong question. We’ve been crippled most when we battle over who’s in charge; we succeed best when we send out the best we have to those who need it most.

This is what retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen calls “unity of effort” instead of “unity of command.” After the battle between New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Washington hamstrung the government’s Katrina response and cost FEMA Director Michael Brown his job, President Bush sent in Allen. The no-nonsense admiral pushed the bureaucratic squabbling aside, figured out who had which assets to solve which problems and promised everyone on the front lines that he had their backs. In remarkably short order, Katrina moved from a monument of government failure to a model of effective response.

In Boston, unity of effort drove success in the federal-state-local-private-public-nonprofit-civilian response, just as it eventually did after Katrina when Allen took the helm. The badges on the uniforms didn’t matter as much as the capacity to get the job done. And the job got done.

The prevention side remains a huge challenge, and stories continue to trickle out of dots unconnected among federal agencies. But on the response side, we’ve come light years since the painful days of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2005 hurricane. It’s heartening to see that we know how to learn, and that we’ve been able to apply winning strategies to tragedies like Superstorm Sandy and Boston.

The Bush Presidential Center poses the big and irresistible “who’s in charge” question. The remarkably brave response in Boston shows us why this is the wrong question. Effective response begins with a strong, integrated, practiced-in-advance local response coupled with a nimble problem-solving ability.

More fundamentally, we’ve learned again that our really important challenges are too big for any one agency, any one level of government or even government itself to try to control. Someone has to be in charge to make sure that coordination happens. But the job of the field commander isn’t barking orders, it’s identifying the assets that are needed, who has them and how to get them to where they’re needed. In the end, what works is focusing more on solving that problem than solving who’s in charge.

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