After The Boston Marathon Bombing, Can We Make Road Races More Secure? And Should We Try?

One of the immediate discussions in the wake of yesterday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon, particularly in the absence of more information about who might have committed these dreadful acts and what distorted reasoning they might offer for having done so, has been the question of how to handle marathons, which take up enormous amounts of public space and involve enormous numbers of spectators, in the future.

“Marathons are not events with X-ray machines and airtight security,” wrote Clare Malone at The American Prospect. “You cannot police every stretch of sidewalk, predict every plot, bomb-proof every trash can. So the worst part is again not knowing the where or the when.”

And at Grantland, Charles Pierce begins in the same place as Malone but comes to different conclusions—and gets at a larger issue. “Every other one of our major sporting rodeos is locked down, and tightened up, and Fail-Safed until the Super Bowl now is little more than NORAD with bad rock music and offensive tackles,” he wrote. “You can’t do that to the Marathon. There was no way to do it. There was no way to lock down, or tighten up, or Fail-Safe into Security Theater a race that covers 26.2 miles, a race that travels from town to town, a race that travels past people’s houses. There was no way to garrison the Boston Marathon. Now there will be. Someone will find a way to do it. And I do not know what the race will be now. I literally haven’t the vaguest clue.”

All of the things that could make marathons more secure would take enormous resources, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t feasible if municipalities are willing to spend resources to do them. Marathon organizers, in coordination with state and federal law enforcement, could run background checks on everyone trying to get race numbers in an effort to screen out anyone who might be attempting to get in order to place an explosive device or detonate a suicide bomb at the starting line, and could perform similar screenings of volunteers, staff, and medical professionals who provide support to the race. It would be extremely burdensome to do so, and local businesses and residents would be hysterical at the inconvenience, but local police could cordon off the race route for a radius of a block or so a week in advance of the race, search public receptacles, and either set up security checkpoints for spectators, or to ban spectators entirely. Start times could be staggered more to prevent concentrations of runners who would be vulnerable to mass casualties. But Lydia DePillis is right that there’s no way to make a marathon route as controlled an environment as a stadium.

But it’s worth asking several questions before making this decision, which has already faced the organizers of the London Marathon, which will be run this week as scheduled. Do we want to dramatically increase security at road races just because it’s theoretically possible to do so? What gain would we make in public safety, particularly in an era where terror targets have tended to shift as we’ve locked down different sectors of public life, in part with the goal of encouraging us to devote financial resources and emotional energy to locking down our public spaces, and in part because novelty is an effective ingredient in spreading fear? And what do we lose in closing a once-open public space that was the site of democratic and generous civic participation?

In the wake of September 11, when we were faced with decisions that restricted our civil liberties or the openness of community life in the name of improving our security, our elected officials, the bureaucracies that govern processes like air travel, and our public consensus has tended to strongly favor security as the most important value and outcome. The inconvenience of removing our shoes at airports and the discomfort of submitting to invasive scanning have been judged less significant than whatever difficult-to-measure gain to safety they contribute to our air travel. The use of demographic profiling in airport security, even as it does damage to our trust in each other, and our progress towards equality and comity across lines of race and ethnicity, is generally accepted by the American public. These changes are irksome and morally damaging, but they don’t necessarily change the fundamental experience of plane travel, or, unfortunately, of living as a non-white person in America.

But would it be worth holding road races at all if runners and spectators can’t have easy access to each other? Unlike shifting around your toiletries, cracking down on race security would fundamentally change the nature of marathoning for both participants and spectators. As Erin Gloria Ryan wrote for Jezebel, much of the value of these events is in the interaction between large numbers of runners and large numbers of viewers in close proximity to them. “The spectators — people who show up and cheer with noisemakers and high fives and encouraging cheers and magic-markered tagboard signs that read “YOU ALL ARE CRAZY! KEEP RUNNING!”— are the people who matter most to runners,” she explained. ” Without those people, a marathon would just be an exercise in self-abuse from a large group of crazies. But there is meaning in marathoning: the people who watch.” That proximity is one of the things that makes road races unique among major sporting events. Stadium sports, which involve much more security prior to entry, also keep the large mass of spectators far away from the athletes themselves, and charge extremely high fees—often in the form of season tickets—to the people who value being physically close, and perhaps even audible to, the players they’re cheering or jeering. Marathon watching is democratic and generous. You only need to show up to claim a place for yourself by the side of the road. And the people you encourage mostly aren’t famous in a way that would produce an anecdote for your friends, later—your only reward is helping them get through.

Safety is obviously important. And I have no wish to diminish the enormous cost of yesterday’s bombing, the death of eight-year-old Martin Richard and two others, the pain of the runners who have lost their limbs and spectators who have sustained grievous injuries from projectiles that appear to have been embedded in the bombs, and the trauma experienced by witnesses, first responders, and the medical professionals who provided heroic levels of care to the survivors of the attack yesterday. As Adam Serwer reported in a piece at Mother Jones, however, sporting events are much less likely to be targets for terrorists in general.

And reminiscences like Gloria’s are an important testament to the value of keeping public spaces open at a time like this when the costs of doing so are all too clear. They’re a reminder that a willingness to harden security is not the only measure of strength. Resilience, a word that comes up frequently in the aftermath of disaster, is actually measure of an object’s ability to return to its former size and shape after being deformed, of people—and societies—to recover from great shock and become ourselves again. And an important measure of our resilience might be a refusal to change after an attack like this one, to decide that there is a real and continued benefit to the city of Boston from 500,000 people coming out to cheer the remarkable feats of tens of thousands of marathon runners that is worth weighing against a less-tangible risk in the future.