Jewish World Review July 23, 2004 / 5 Menachem-Av, 5764

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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An illusion of security | Forty miles of roadway into Boston, including the most heavily-traveled stretch of I-93, will be shut down for at least eight hours a day when the Democratic convention comes to John Kerry's hometown next week. The eastern end of the Charles River will be closed to boat traffic. Hundreds of surveillance cameras will be trained on public spaces all over the city. Coast Guard airplanes will fly over Boston Harbor, while a fleet of Winnebago-sized "mobile command vehicles" will be deployed to help coordinate what Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge promises will be "multiple layers of security" during the convention.

And that's just for starters.

All deliveries to the Fleet Center, where the convention is being held, will be X-rayed, and delegates have been given a list of items that may not be brought into the building. (Among them: umbrellas, sealed envelopes, and flashlights). Passengers using mass transit will be subject to random searches on subway and commuter rail lines; police will have electronic wands and bomb-sniffing dogs to screen riders' backpacks and briefcases.

Meanwhile, mailboxes and trash barrels have been removed from many Boston streets, the better to foil would-be terrorists from planting bombs. Manhole covers near the convention site have been sealed. Many government offices will shut down for the week, including courthouses and the Boston Passport Agency. The Massachusetts State House will be closed to the public. And protesters wanting to send a message to the Democrats will be penned behind an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence.

All this and more is necessary, we are told, to protect the Democratic convention and the city hosting it from terrorism. In a post-9/11, post-Madrid world, there is said to be no alternative. Hundreds of thousands of residents, visitors, and commuters cannot be spared these inconveniences. Businesses, vacations, and workdays must be disrupted. Civil liberties must be infringed. More than $50 million must be spent, and more than 3,000 law enforcement officers deployed. Unfortunately but unavoidably, this is what it will take to keep Boston safe.

But what about Minneapolis?

Suppose for the moment that this massive security buildup really will make Boston and the Democratic convention terror-proof. What is to stop Al Qaeda from striking somewhere else? If Boston is on high alert next week, terrorists can hit Cleveland. Or Dallas. Or Seattle. Or all three. Why target a city where extraordinary measures have been taken to deter any attack, when hundreds of other cities are wide open? It isn't necessary to terrorize Boston. Americans would be no less unnerved, and the bloodshed no less horrific, if bombs went off in Baltimore or Buffalo instead.

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Of course it makes sense to take reasonable precautions, but turning Boston into a quasi-police state is not reasonable. It is a frantic overreaction to what is at most a hypothetical threat.

After all, do terrorists single out red-letter dates or important civic gatherings for their bloody work? No national convention was underway in New York or Washington when 3,000 Americans were massacred on 9/11. Madrid was not the site of a big political conclave last March, when bombs in knapsacks sent 191 train passengers to early graves. The victims in Bali, Indonesia, were not engaged in political activity when the killers struck in October 2002; they were dancing in a nightclub. Far from moving Boston to the top of the terrorists' target list, the coming Democratic convention probably moves it to the bottom.

Besides, if suicide bombers are bent on wreaking mayhem in Boston next week, they won't be stopped by surveillance cameras or an absence of trash cans downtown. They can just as easily attack a crowded suburban movie theater. Or a busy supermarket. Or a congested highway. Or a hospital emergency room.

"The reality," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the other day, "is that a terrorist can attack at any time, at any place, using any technique, and it is physically impossible to protect every location, every minute of the day or night, against every conceivable type of attack."

Terrorists cannot be defeated by playing defense. Not even the best-trained police officers — or 3,000 of them — are enough to wipe out an ideological enemy determined to kill innocent civilians. Wise homeland security policies can help keep foreign terrorists from reaching American soil and identify those already here. But terrorists can ultimately be wiped out only by going on the offensive. That means draining the swamps in which they breed — reforming or topppling the criminal regimes that sustain them, cutting off their access to money, and vigorously challenging them in the arena of ideas.

Shutting down Boston's highways and taking umbrellas away from Democratic delegates will not make America safer. Terrorists know better than to take such tactics seriously. We should, too.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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