On the Boston Marathon attacks

I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday's attack at the Boston Marathon -- to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have been in the wrong place when some evildoer planted a senseless bomb. 

For the rest of us, however, there are already lessons to be drawn. For me, the most important thing to remember is that such events, however vivid, shocking, and tragic, do not in fact pose a mortal threat to our society and our freedoms, unless we let them. For as horrible as yesterday's events were, Americans are not in fact at greater risk than they were before. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence on American soil in the past, and there will be in the future. Yet the odds that any American will in fact be affected by terrorist violence of any sort remains astronomically small. And so long as future incidents do not involve weapons of mass destruction -- and especially nuclear weapons -- then their impact will be limited to a few unlucky individuals who tragically happen to caught in terrorism's web through no fault of their own.

Thus far, the response to this outrage has been encouraging. For the most part, people have refrained from ill-informed speculation about responsibility. Boston and Massachusetts officials responded intelligently, swiftly, and calmly to yesterday's events, and ordinary citizens at the scene reacted in ways that makes one proud of our common humanity. If the perpetrators were seeking to sow confusion and panic or trigger some sort of massive over-reaction, they failed. I am confident we will eventually find out who did this and that they will eventually be brought to justice. 

There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven by their own beliefs or demons to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures -- as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday's race -- and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal's motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.

But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America -- or the rest of the world -- is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.

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National Security

Overcoming gridlock: The secret use of American power

Many people believe that the United States is incapable of bold and ambitious responses to contemporary policy problems, largely because its political institutions aren't designed to act decisively. In this view, the United States is saddled with a federal system where government power is divided, with multiple veto points and various "checks and balances" that help prevent excessive concentrations of power. Add to that free speech, an intermittently vigorous press corps, a vast array of interest groups, and a degree of political partisanship, and you have a recipe for gridlock.

Or so it is said. There is a grain of truth in this caricature: the men who designed the U.S. Constitution were wary of centralized power (and standing armies!), and it is not at all surprising that they designed a system that seems to make radical change difficult. But there are some important exceptions to that general rule, and the exceptions themselves are instructive.

For example, during World War II the Manhattan Project assembled much of the world's most eminent scientific talent in a crash program that produced an atomic bomb in less than five years. Moreover, at its peak the Project was consuming ten percent (!) of the electricity produced in the entire United States, and its facilities contained more floor space than the entire U.S. auto industry. Despite this vast effort, only a handful of Americans were even aware of the project until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

More recently, the 9/11 attacks produced a similarly rapid and far-reaching U.S. response, whose full dimensions are still not completely known by the U.S. public. In addition to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent lame-brained decision to invade Iraq, the United States also passed the Patriot Act and launched a wide-ranging global effort to track down and kill as many al Qaeda members as it could find. In the process, it has created a large infrastructure of government and contractor agencies and shifted the CIA's focus away from intelligence gathering and toward a global effort to eradicate al Qaeda and its affiliates through mostly lethal means.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the U.S. system of government is quite capable of swift and ambitious policy initiatives when the public and key officials are really scared (as we were in 1941 and after 9/11). One might add the response to the invasion of South Korea in 1950 and to Sputnik's launch back in 1957. And this tendency in turn helps explain why threat-inflation is such a common tool within the foreign policy establishment. When Americans are feeling safe and secure, gridlock prevails. But when they are frightened, politicians are both able to launch big initiatives and motivated to do so by the fear that the public will punish them if they don't do enough to defend the nation.

The other important lesson is that big and bold initiatives are far easier when they are kept secret. Nobody knew about the Manhattan Project, and to this day nobody knows the full extent of what our national security machinery has been up to do since 9/11. Books like Mark Mazzetti's new The Way of the Knife and the Washington Post's important articles on "Top Secret America" have peeled back the veil to a degree, but there are undoubtedly many things being done in America's name (and with U.S. tax dollars) about which taxpayers are still unaware.

The danger is two-fold. First, if secrecy makes it easier to do big things, then policymakers will be tempted to make many issues as secret as possible. Classification will run amok, not to keep valuable information from our enemies but mostly from citizens who might object. And with secrecy comes a greater danger that foolish policies won't be adequately debated or scrutinized. This problem is widespread in authoritarian regimes where dissent is squelched and open debate is impossible, but it can also happen in democracies if the circle of decision is tiny and the public is kept in the dark.

The second danger stemming from popular ignorance is blowback. If Americans don't know what their government is doing (or has done), they won't fully understand why other societies view the United States as they do. In particular, Americans won't understand why others are sometimes angry at the United States, and they will tend to interpret anger or resistance as evidence of some sort of primordial or culturally-based hatred. The result is a familiar spiral of conflict, where each side sees its own actions as fully justified by the other's supposedly innate hostility. And I'd argue that spiral dynamics are at the heart of a number of difficult foreign policy challenges, especially in our dealings with the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately, unwinding spirals is not easy, and all the more so if a country still doesn't understand exactly why others are ticked off.

Addendum: By a strange coincidence, my colleague Larry Summers has published a column in today's Financial Times, making a somewhat similar argument about the ability of the U.S. government to act more decisively than many people often believe. You can find his views here.

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