A New Challenge: Preventing Future "Soft Target" Attacks

The Boston Marathon bombings have thrown into focus a different side of terrorism.

Posted: 04/16/2013 05:12 PM EDT

The nation has never quite gotten over 9/11, but as each year has passed without a successful attack on U.S. soil, the more comfortable Americans have become with the idea that such a tragedy may not happen again. The Transportation Security Administration even wants to allow travelers to bring certain small knives onto aircrafts again.

Could the jolting wake-up call of the Boston Marathon bombings put an end to all that?

"It put the issue of terrorism back on the national radar screen. There hadn't been a successful attack or even a near-miss in recent years, so our attention was turning to other things," said Clark Kent Ervin, director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program. "This shows us that terrorism remains with us."

The Boston incident is all the more shocking because the marathon is what Ervin and other experts call a "soft target."

"It was a perfect storm: there were thousands of people from the U.S. and around the world in an atmosphere of festivity at an event that had never had an incident before," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security. "We have to recognize that in these circumstances we have to add extra measures of security and review."

But soft targets also are a reminder that we can never be 100 percent safe.

"I'd like to look at what systems were in place at the marathon to see if there's something else we can do, but to be honest, there's no amount of money we can throw at a situation like Boston, a World Series or Super Bowl that can guarantee that someone who's intent on hurting people won't be successful," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. "Scary, but it's the truth."

Americans have come to expect a certain level of security — and threat — at sites in Washington, D.C., like the White House, or at some of New York's iconic buildings, Ervin added. And that's where the psychic impact of terrorism comes into play.

"Terrorists want to kill and injure as many people as they can, but they want to terrorize everyone else," Ervin said. "I always thought that a successful soft target attack would have as much of a psychic impact as a successful one in a major city on a major target, and that's what happened in Boston," he said.

So, just as in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the nation is now grappling with how to prevent a similar incident. The marathon bombings, ironically, have put gun control reform on the back burner, at least temporarily.

How lawmakers respond could in part depend on what's learned about the bombings, such as who or what was behind it and the motive. At times like these, Americans are more open to measures they might otherwise consider intrusive, but for the next several months they may likely be more receptive.

London, which will hold a major international marathon in just a few days' time, has an extensive closed-circuit television system (CCTV) that has proven to be a very strong deterrent to both terrorist and criminal acts.

"Most important, perhaps, is it can be used as a forensic tool after the fact in helping to identify exactly who's involved [in an incident], how the person did it, etc.," Ervin said.

But as he also noted, Americans are a "very privacy conscious" lot, so part of the challenge will be finding a way to balance privacy and security.

Jackson Lee, a self-professed "privacy advocate," has concerns about the intensity of CCTV surveillance.

"America is a different nation, and any extensive use of cameras or infringement on civil liberties, Congress has to take the responsibility to determine what would be the level of tolerance of protection as it relates to the invasion of our privacy," she said.

But something must be done, she acknowledged, adding that "as long as we stay comfortable in what we're doing today, we remain vulnerable to what may happen tomorrow."

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(Photo: Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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