In the face of twin bomb blasts in Boston, a restrained President Obama betrayed no emotion, and did not dwell on the details.
“The events in Boston,” he said, without describing the twin bomb blasts that ripped through crowds of spectators at the end of the city’s annual marathon Monday. “People have been wounded,” he said, without mentioning the two deaths already confirmed. He declined to use the word terrorism even though his aides quickly offered this statement to the press: “Any event with multiple explosive devices — as this appears to be — is clearly an act of terror.”
Instead Obama went before the cameras in the White House briefing room to perform a duty he had long known could be expected of him. For five years, the possibility of an explosion on U.S. soil killing innocent Americans has always shadowed the President. At least twice before it nearly took place: in a botched 2009 attempt to blow up an airplane with an underwear-sewn explosive over Detroit and an attempt in 2010 to set off a car bomb in a Nissan Pathfinder parked near New York City’s Times Square.
But now that the moment came, Obama simply carried out his primary responsibility: claiming control of the situation and promising to restore a sense of order and safety to a shaken nation. “We will find out who did this; we’ll find out why they did this,” he said. “Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.”
All across the federal government, the response had the same feel of efficient formality. The White House released a photo of the President talking on a phone with the director of the FBI. House Speaker John Boehner released a photo of himself speaking with the President by phone. The flags on the Capitol were lowered to half-mast. The U.S. Navy deployed an explosives-denotation team to help Boston police clear the city streets of suspect bags. The various other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, promised their substantial resources to investigating and solving the crime. The FBI took the lead of the criminal investigation.
Left unanswered were the questions that will inevitably be asked in the coming days: Were the increased antiterrorism measures taken over the past decade sufficient? Did the massive federal infrastructure seeking to identify such threats before they were acted upon let clues slip by them?
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security had attempted to formalize and rationalize the federal support to local law-enforcement trying to protect major sporting events and political gatherings. In 2005, the department published a Prioritized List of Special Events, grading each gathering on a scale of one to four with a certain level of recommended federal assistance. As of Monday night, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security had not responded to questions about how the Boston Marathon had been rated or whether that rating had been changed in recent years.
In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller had made clear that the marathon was a major federal priority. “More resources also means a much stronger presence at special events,” he said in a 2002 speech in California. “We were out in force, for example, at this week’s Boston Marathon.”
There will likely be no simple answers in the coming weeks. “You could have prevented something like this from happening today, but you would have completely destroyed the race,” said Edward Connors, the president of the Institute for Law and Justice, who authored a 2007 federal study on proper guidelines for planning and managing security for major special events. “For these kind of events the expectation is set that you have tremendous public access.”
Ironically, President Obama had begun his day planning to praise the athleticism of his country, with a public photo opportunity with members of the University of Alabama football team, winners of the 2013 Bowl Championship Series. Instead, he ended the day praising sport in a very different context. “It’s a day that draws the world to Boston’s streets in a spirit of friendly competition,” Obama said about the marathon. “Boston is a tough and resilient town. So are its people. I’m supremely confident that Bostonians will pull together, take care of each other and move forward as one proud city. And as they do, the American people will be with them every single step of the way.“
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