The Boston Bombing and the Militarization of Risk

Frank Ackerman

We’re fine, thanks. Like everyone in the metropolitan area, I suspect, I got calls from relatives and friends elsewhere, checking that my family and I survived the Boston Marathon bombing unharmed.

We also weren’t hurt by exploding chemical facilities. Or by gun nuts exercising their Second Amendment “rights” to own and carry lethal weapons.

It’s clear which of these threats prompted the most intense response – and also which one caused the least death and destruction in the United States last week. Boston is number one, on both counts.

Every premature death, every preventable major injury, is a tragedy which we should seek to prevent. There is no nobler purpose for public policy. But does the understandably passionate response to the Boston Marathon bombs really reveal our society at its best, as so many comments have suggested?

Consider another debate, concerning environmental policy and cost-benefit analysis. We are often told that there are so many potential life-saving or life-improving measures that we can’t afford them all; cost-benefit analysis is said to be needed to ensure that we spend our scarce resources wisely, on the initiatives with the greatest benefit to society. By this standard, the Boston bombing, which killed 3 people and injured more than 100, jumped the queue, attracting far greater resources than much graver tragedies.

Two days after the Boston bombing, a considerably larger explosion occurred in a town near Dallas. The explosion, at a small company which stored and sold agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, killed at least 14 people, injured hundreds, and completed destroyed 50 homes along with other buildings and vehicles. The plant was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 28 years ago; that inspection found five serious violations, including improper storage and handling of explosive chemicals, and resulted in a $30 fine. In 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency fined the firm $2,300 for its lack of a risk management plan. Another federal agency inspected in 2011, imposed a $5,250 fine for violations involving explosive chemicals – and later announced that the violations had been corrected.

Even greater loss of life results from the epidemic abuse of guns in America. In 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were an average of more than 30 murders and 53 suicides using firearms every day of the year. Our increasingly paralyzed and undemocratic Congress has just refused to take any action whatsoever to reduce gun violence, even rejecting a timid measure supported by 90 percent of the country, to require background checks on most but not all of the large number of gun sales that are currently unrecorded and unregulated.

It is gratifying, but entirely unsurprising, that Bostonians display civic pride and determination in the face of crisis, and that the country is committed to preventing further terrorist attacks. More puzzling is the disinterest in much greater sources of death and destruction.

Response to a crisis may reveal society at its best, but the choice of which crises we respond to reveals the biases that prevent us from doing better. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman notes that people often have trouble understanding uncertain, low-probability events – typically either ignoring the possibility, or greatly exaggerating its likelihood. In a world of multiple risks, which low-probability dangers do we ignore, and which do we exaggerate?

The ever-more-conservative trend in American politics since the 1980s, barely interrupted by the Clinton and Obama administrations, has led to a turn away from progressive social and environmental strategies, and an embrace of military solutions and draconian criminal penalties as responses to numerous threats. Michelle Alexander’s painfully powerful book, The New Jim Crow, describes this process in the context of the “war on drugs.” The Boston Marathon bombing was not the deadliest threat facing the nation last week, but it may have been the most amenable to military responses. Locking down a million people (we can only pray that this does not become the new normal) allowed the police unimpeded control of the streets, in varieties of armored vehicles that only the Pentagon possessed a generation ago.

The militarized view of risk doesn’t offer much guidance into the fertilizer plant explosion (since it does not seem to have been an intentional act of sabotage). Realistically, there’s not much that SWAT teams can do about it: Are they going to drive those OSHA inspectors back to the plant in an armored personnel carrier, to give that company a lesson it won’t forget about safe handling of chemicals? Or lock down Congress until it votes for real health and safety regulations, and the funds to enforce them?

The inability to challenge our murderous gun culture is the greatest failure of public safety in recent days. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson has eloquently argued, our pride in the response to the Boston bombing has to be tempered with shame at Congressional cowardice on guns. Fascination with guns, and fantasies of good guys outshooting the bad guys, contribute to the disturbing and accelerating militarization of public life.

One of the popular responses to the Newtown school massacre, putting more police and armed guards in schools, may actually make things worse. As the New York Times has pointed out, recent research shows that the presence of police in schools does not lead to reductions in rates of any type of crime – but it does send more students into criminal justice system for less serious offenses (such as fights without weapons), leaving teenagers saddled with arrest records instead of lectures from the principal. Militarization of the schools is not the answer.

It’s good to know that the perpetrators of the horrendous Boston Marathon bombing will be unable to do any more harm, and that the Boston area is united in its defiant response to this terrorist attack. Now that we have tackled one of the mid-sized causes of recent death and destruction, are we ready to go after the big ones?

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5 Responses to “The Boston Bombing and the Militarization of Risk”

  1. […] The Boston Bombing and the Militarization of Risk Triple Crisis […]

  2. McMike says:

    Well said.

    The other problem with militarization seems to be that the only response available to its (inevitable) failure to protects us, is to exponentially continue to ratchet up the militarization.

    If a cop in each school doesn’t work, then maybe we need five cops and automatic RC guns mounted over the classroom doors.

    If cameras don’t stop terrorist attacks, maybe we need to stop and frisk every single person on the street at heavy checkpoints.

    And onward and downward.

    Once the genie is out of the bottle, turning back the clock to head in other directions is never an option.

  3. Sarah Edith Cobb McMillan says:

    Yes. So much yes. It does seem to me that this was not an instance of terrorism, since the brothers did not claim it as an act with an ideological or tactical goal. Seems to me it was plain old murder, simple and horrific.

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