The winners had long been crowned, and the VIPs had drifted off. Parents and children, college students, and anyone else with a desire to witness the triumph of a long-distance runner lined the street.
That’s when two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line.
Bomb-sniffing dogs had twice swept through the area. Uniformed police, plus undercover detectives, were out in force. But, so late into the race, could their guard have been down?
“Absolutely,” acknowledged Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis in an interview last week. “There’s a tendency to think we got through it . . . There’s a propensity to think we got over the hump.”
The timing of the attack helped the alleged bombers, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. An apparent weakness in information sharing between law enforcement authorities might have also helped them carry out their deadly crime.
The all-pervasive atmosphere of high alert after 9/11 has faded.
“I’m not satisfied,” said Davis, when asked about the information gap. “I need to look more carefully at what people knew and when they knew it . . . At this point in time, we are looking closely to see if mistakes were made.”
The bombs the brothers allegedly left behind killed three people and injured hundreds of others. They also put terrorism, both organized and the lone wolf variety, back on the radar screen of every police chief in the country.
The assault on Boston’s Marathon day played out against a broader reality. The shock of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has faded, and with it an all-pervasive atmosphere of high alert, said Chuck Wexler, the head of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank based in Washington.
“It has been 10 years since 9/11, and, for most police agencies, the reality is that priorities in police departments shift with the times,” said Wexler. “So this is not to say terrorism is not a concern, but except for certain departments like New York and LA — for the most part the threat of terrorism has not gone away, but is not near where it was 10 years ago.”
Facing budget cuts and other challenges, police focused more on local crime, said Wexler. In recent years, the outbreak of mass shootings forced them to rethink their tactics and law enforcement agenda.
Information sharing is “light years ahead of where it was 10 years ago,” said Wexler. Still, reporting by the Globe raises questions about the quality of data shared about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the bombing suspect who died after a gunfight with police. The FBI interviewed him in 2011 after Russian authorities warned the agency that he might have been influenced by Islamic radicals. The CIA also received information from Russia, which it shared with the FBI. The two agencies ultimately put him in the government’s watch list system. However, after Tsarnaev took a six-month trip to Dagestan and Chechnya, he fell off an FBI watch list.
No one was watching him. He and his brother were free to buy the materials needed to assemble their deadly weapons and saunter onto Boylston Street.
One side was set up for VIPs, whose bags and ID are checked before entrance into a cordoned-off area. The other side was for the public. On that side of that street, bags weren’t checked and people freely come and go.
Law enforcement was universally praised for tracking down the brothers once photos of the two were released to the public. The manhunt and lockdown that led to the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the capture of Dzhokhar required extensive cooperation between local police and federal authorities. In the days to come, there will be much second-guessing about what led up to it, and there should be. Security in general, and Marathon security in particular, will be back on the front burner.
But, as Wexler points out, one of the challenges of policing in a democracy is “how schizophrenic” we are about what we say we want. Do the Marathon bombings mean that the next time someone goes to a suspicious website or visits a foreign country with a terrorist history, they should be placed under surveillance?
The price of freedom can be very high. It certainly was for scores of ordinary citizens who happened to be at the finish line of this year’s Boston Marathon.