April 16, 2013 1:42 PM
The horrifying events of yesterday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon brought back a flood of memories, some from my childhood and some from a prior career event.
When I was in prep school in New England (Washington Academy in Maine), I distinctly recall how Patriots Day was such an important regional holiday. Being home from school, I knew that after the running of the race, there would be a Red Sox matinee game from Fenway Park. This combined to make it a very good holiday, only enhanced by living in a region with such deep Revolutionary War roots. Those roots made one a but more mindful of what it took to establish this new country and its free society.
Our family moved back to Florida in the summer of 1972 when the Air Force decided that was where my father would be stationed. As we sat in our house, waiting on our lost furniture to be delivered by the movers, I was struck by the coverage of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Sitting on lawn furniture and watching a hastily-purchased little black-and-white television, I saw ABC Sports’ Jim McKay’s deliver the tragic news that the Israeli athletes, originally hostages, were now casualties. Perhaps it was learning Olympic-style wrestling back in prep school made me feel more deeply the loss of the Israeli wrestlers, weightlifters, and coaches. This feeling is probably why I began my academic study of terrorism and made it the subject of my master’s thesis at Florida State.
Fast forward to the 1990s and I am working as the chief academic officer at the Florida State Fire College. It was a semi-regular event that international delegations from foreign fire services would tour the campus as part of a trip to Florida. Since I could quickly pick up a few pleasantries in the the visitors’ language, I became our “ambassador at large” and would conduct these groups around the college and discuss American fire-rescue techniques. Twice, we hosted the chief inspector of the Israeli fire service and twice I was humbled and honored by receiving the City of Jerusalem friendship medal.
However, it was in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that I was drawn into action about the subject of terrorism. Since the State Fire Marshal’s office is both law enforcement and fire-rescue I felt our college was uniquely poised to be a research and training hub for counter-terrorism. We hosted a couple of excellent statewide seminars and added many specialty courses to the catalog, even before Federal pass-through courses were created.
It was this activity that led to my getting an odd request from the Commander of the state’s Capitol Police. There was much discussion in Tallahassee about the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building incident in Oklahoma City and what vulnerability there was for the Capitol Complex in Tallahassee. The police commander felt he needed some statistical back-up in his argument for more funding and wondered if I, in my unofficial role of “professor of terrorism studies,” had something he could use. I said I didn’t know of such a resource but that I would make one.
The resulting monograph required me to look at how terrorism had changed from Munich to the current day. I found that the trend was away from “professional” incidents like kidnapping, hostage-taking, and skyjacking, to more indiscriminate violence, like the bombings of the US Embassy and USMC barracks in Beirut in 1983. Using open source intel, it was only a few days’ work to see that the lethality per incident was increasing exponentially and that is logical if you go from assassinating a Prime Minister and bodyguard (the Aldo Moro case) to blowing up an entire building. My recommendation was that more emphasis needed to be placed on site-hardening, as more random acts of violence would be the future face of terrorism.
Which brings us back to Boston …
There is a difference between mass fatalities and mass casualties. In harsh terms, dead people are quiet. However, the wails of pain from the severely injured are impossible to forget. Dead people require little care but injured people require triage, transport, and treatment. It more severely taxes emergency resources and spreads more horror to injure people than to kill them. The shrapnel storm unleashed on Patriots Day proves this point and we must learn this lesson well.