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Lawrence Harmon

The false choice between security and civil liberties

Spectators watched runners approach Cleveland Circle Monday before the explosions.

BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF

Spectators watched runners approach Cleveland Circle Monday before the explosions.

There is security you see. There is security you don’t see. And suddenly there is a sense that there is no security at all. The last category best describes this terrifying week, which began with two terrorist bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon and ended with a running shootout with the suspects through Cambridge and Watertown.

When law enforcement and the public finally catch their breath, a deep discussion needs to take place over how best to proceed. Terror attacks on American soil — homegrown or otherwise — inevitably raise debate over the danger of trading away our civil liberties for safety. But often this is a false choice. Much more can be done to protect us without threatening the American way of life. And it must be done; this week, three spectators died in the Marathon blasts, and an MIT police officer was later killed by one of the suspects. And that says nothing of the 176 people who were wounded — some horribly — in the Marathon bombings.

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Security along the 26-mile Marathon route included air patrols, bomb-sniffing dogs, and more than 1,000 police officers and military personnel. But the decision to give thousands of people access to the crowded finish line area without visual checks of their backpacks and belongings canceled out all of the other painstaking precautions.

Police say they can’t inspect the belongings of everyone along the entire route without decimating the spirit of an event where spectators are as important to the overall experience as the runners. But that is a false choice, too. The goal is to mitigate risk, not eliminate it by creating a police state. England will still be free on Sunday following the London Marathon, where police set up additional inspection points at key viewing sites. And you can believe we will adopt similar measures in Boston next year. Spectators who want the best vantage point should submit to extra security checks. At most, it’s a marginal inconvenience.

The rudimentary “improvised explosive devices’’ used by the terrorists led to what Boston police commissioner Edward Davis called “the most complex crime scene’’ in the city’s history. The successful manhunt for the suspects shut down large sections of Greater Boston, including Watertown and Cambridge. Imagine for a moment what more sophisticated terrorists might be capable of.

Surface transportation is a favorite target of warped, makeshift terrorists like those who attacked Boston. To protect the subway system, the MBTA has a sophisticated system of closed-circuit cameras and sensors for chemical agents.

Yet about 60 percent of the T’s buses have no security cameras. Nearly 8,000 people were killed and 30,000 wounded in surface transportation attacks around the world from 1970 to 2012, according to the Mineta Transportation Institute, a national research organization created by Congress. Yet historically, we have placed a low priority on securing surface transportation. This vulnerability needs to be addressed, and quickly.

MBTA police superintendent Joseph O’Connor said efforts are underway “to harden buses as targets,’’ including the use of high-visibility patrols. But such techniques do not extend to training drivers to challenge passengers who raise suspicions. It would be absurd to check passengers’ bags on all buses and all routes. But there should be a role for intermittent inspections by T police and even drivers on crowded downtown bus routes where a bombing could cause the greatest loss of life.

It is crazy to allow people to enter crowded movie theaters and other entertainment venues without bag inspections. It takes only a few seconds for security guards to look inside or, more importantly, feel the weight of a bag to determine if it might contain something suspicious. It’s not foolproof. But again, it shifts the odds in our favor. And the inconvenience is minimal. After all, the ticket holder is going inside to watch a movie for the next few hours, not rushing to catch a train.

New threats also call for changes in the security profession. At one end of the safety spectrum, we have superbly trained first responders, brilliant investigators, and forensic experts. At the other end, we have minimally trained security guards protecting soft targets like malls and retail establishments. If the Marathon bombing is a glimpse of our future, there is a need for a new type of specialist guard. They wouldn’t need lengthy and expensive training in defensive driving, criminal law, domestic violence, and other subjects taught in traditional police academies. They would need the training and awareness to spot suspicious people and situations.

The odds of more terror attacks are greater than the odds of losing our essential freedoms. This week has shown that we should tighten our security and loosen our concerns about minor limitations on our freedom of movement.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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