Boston Marathon Bombings: Are We Still Safe? Have We Ever Been?

Monday, another tragedy struck the United States as scores were injured and three were killed in an apparent terrorist attack during the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts. With so many looming unknowns, and with the visceral shock of the event, some are suggesting that safety is a thing of the past. But has it ever been?

On Tuesday, Rachelle Cohen, editorial page director for the Boston Herald, published an op-ed describing the tragedy from her perspective. To Cohen, the tragedy was not just a loss life or of Boston’s innocence — the death of its naiveté — but also a moment which spoke profound truth to fellow citizens. To Cohen, the moment symbolized the death of Bostonians’ sense of security: 

"We have grown contemptuous of the host of silly rules and regulations designed to give the appearance of keeping us safe, when we know in our hearts that there is no such thing as safe any more." [Bold emphasis added, italics in original]

Cohen’s op-ed continues with this line of thinking to an unexpected conclusion: 

"[Safety is] just an impossible task — unless, of course, we want to take a page from our Israeli friends and post armed guards at shop entrances, military at historic sites and major hotels." 

Major assertion aside — that only a powerful state presence can safeguard the populace — Cohen's editorial, in its use of "any more," begs deeper questions: Can America ever be safe again, and when was it safe before?

Source: FBI

Indeed, with the ascending post-9/11 generation, the idea that America is under threat has come to define most, if not at least half, of our lives. It has become commonplace to sacrifice a modicum of convenience and privacy for our security. For this blow to come as the War on Terror is winding down, the question of whether we were ever really "safe" demands reexamination. 

When has America been safest from terrorism? There are many different ways to define terrorism, but, among the broadest is the one given in the Patriot Act: 

"Domestic terrorism occurs primarily within the US territorial jurisdiction, and involves acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, and appear to be intended to (1) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; or (2) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (3) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping." 

To simplify, we can consider something an act of terror if it acts in violence against citizens, property, or the state to affect social or political outcomes. In applying this definition to American history, it becomes clear that terrorism has been in play in American politics for roughly as long as our nation has existed. 

The oldest and most recognizable example is the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In 1865, a coalition of Confederate supporters aimed to weaken the government by sending it to chaos, thus making it easier to overthrow. Together, the conspirators aimed to assassinate President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward. While they succeeded in killing President Lincoln, the attack on Johnson was never carried out, and Seward survived multiple stab wounds. 

Indeed, throughout American history, the violence persists. In 1910, the Los Angeles Times building was destroyed by dynamite, killing 21. The bomb was placed by the McNamara brothers in retaliation for the paper's refusal to allow its employees to unionize. In 1915, a German professor detonated a bomb in the U.S. Senate, with the political goal of ceasing U.S. armament support to Germany’s enemies. In Michigan in 1927 a radical school board member named Andrew Kehoe, who blamed local taxes for the foreclosure of his farm, set off three bombs and killed 45 people including 38 students. 

From 1940 to 1956, the Mad Bomber terrorized New York City by planting multiple bombs in various public locations. Due to a work-related injury he was denied benefits for, he retaliated to draw attention to the "evils" of Consolidated Edison, and left letters cut out from magazines. From 1978 to 1995, the Unabomber terrorized Americans via USPS. In the 1980s, members of the Jewish Defense League committed 15 documented acts of terror. 

More recently, we can recall the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995. We can also recall the 2009 assassination of George Tiller in Kansas for performing late-term abortions. And as recent as 2010, in Austin, TX, Andrew Joseph Stack III flew his personal plane into the IRS building, killing himself and one other person. 

And, of course, we can all remember September of 2001, when planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. 

Beyond those stories alone, the veritable list of public spectacles of violence balloons from some of our nation's youngest years to its most modern moments. The answer to the question behind Cohen's article — when was America safe from terrorism, and when can it be safe again? — crystallizes into a disturbing answer: America has never been safe from terrorism, and it never will be.

In fact, a look at the data provided by the FBI demonstrates the counter-intuitive conclusion that, from 1985 to 2005, the incidence of terrorism remained not only fairly stable, but represented a dramatic decline from a peak in the early 80s. The real question Americans need to be asking is not when or if they will be safe again, but when will our perceptions catch up with reality.