blunt about the new environment surrounding what was once a fun outing. "Spectators approaching viewing areas on the course, or in viewing areas on the course, may be asked to pass through security checkpoints, and law enforcement officers or contracted private security personnel may ask to inspect bags and other items being carried."One year after a bloody bombing that made international headlines, the Boston Athletic Association, organizer of the Boston Marathon, was
Warning signs along the marathon route pulled even fewer punches. One, posted by the Newton Police Department, not only threatened suspicionless searches, but cautioned that "anyone refusing the search will be escorted off the route."
Note that the route consists of 26 miles of public roads.
"I don't think there's a lot of safety to be gained," security expert Bruce Schneier says of the measures. "It's really for a show of force" rather than to prevent a recurrence of something like 2013's terrorist attack. Schneier believes that any new plot would have come off relatively unimpeded by the police, National Guardsmen, and checkpoints at this year's event. The very public security presence would be left to respond after the fact.
His doubts echo those of Ronald K. Noble, a former Treasury Department official and now secretary general of Interpol, the international police-coordination organization, who mused after the Westgate mall shooting in Kenya, "How do you protect soft targets? That's really the challenge. You can't have armed police forces everywhere."
A foot race route covering 26 miles, plus venues, would seem to be a very soft target, and one difficult to fully cover with police.
Not that there's much chance of those police having to respond to a terrorist attack, despite the horrors visited on attendees at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The U.S. State Department reports that 12 Americans were killed or injured around the world by terrorism in 2012. That was down from 31 in 2011. Even the roughly 3,000 people murdered by the 9/11 attacks were a small fraction of the over 42,000 killed in car accidents (PDF) that year.
Reason's own Ron Bailey calculates that an American's chance of dying in a terrorist incident is about one in 20 million—less than the chance of being struck by a lightning bolt.
But to combat that one in 20 million possibility, America's high-profile events and public places are increasingly locked down. The Superbowl in January featured similarly tight security, with checkpoints, restrictions, surveillance, and searches imposing a high cost in return for uncertain improvements in safety against a vanishingly small risk.
The security presence "has institutionalized fear," warns Schneier. "It reinforces the notion that terrorism is a big deal, when in fact...it's a really minor risk."
And institutionalized anything has a way of becoming a permanent part of the landscape. Officials and agencies are loath to surrender new powers, budgets, and toys.
"Police may implement what is billed as a temporary security regime, but then turns out to be permanent," warns Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty initiative at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "All too often, when law enforcement beef up security for special events like political conventions or major sports competitions, the surveillance apparatus that’s established remains firmly in place long after the crowds are gone."
Crockford worries that some or all of the security measures implemented for the marathon, such as an artificial intelligence system piggybacked on the backbone of the region's government surveillance camera network, may remain long after the runners are gone.
The dangers of terrorism are remote, the measures taken against them lingering—and there are also dangers in forcing people to submit to increasingly intrusive measures and to grow dependent on them.