An OpEd of mine from The Citizen, the Kennedy School newspaper, published May 29, 2013, discussing the memorial service for MIT Officer Sean Collier and my experience at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
They had come from Cambridge and Boston, of course, and from Burlington and Lowell and Worchester. They had come from Connecticut and New Hampshire, from Maine and New York. They had come from Chicago, from Quebec, from Australia. Thousands of law-enforcement officers gathered at MIT on April 24, to honor slain MIT Police Officer Sean Collier. I am a sergeant with the New York City Police Department, and I also stood in the surprisingly hot sun that day.
Not the first time, and not the last: I’ve been to more police funerals than I like to count. Sean Collier’s memorial was different. In New York, for a violent line-of-duty death like Officer Collier’s, it’s not unusual for nine or ten thousand NYPD officers to stand in their dress blues, lining the street leading to the church or funeral home, four or five deep for half a mile or more. So I’d seen as many cops, but never from so many agencies. And I’d never seen a governor, a senator, and the Vice President of the United States rise to speak at a cop’s funeral, much less heard live music from James Taylor.
But then again, Officer Collier’s memorial wasn’t just about the murder of an exemplary young officer, one who was proof that police can embrace—and be embraced by—the communities they serve and protect. It was about the marathon too.
Nine days earlier, on Patriots’ Day, fellow Kennedy School student Mike Finn and I were at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We were waiting for two other HKS friends to cross when the first bomb went off fifteen feet behind us and to our right. After people fled, Mike and I did what we could, mostly helping to tear down the barricades and scaffolds separating the first responders in the race course from the casualties on the sidewalk, before police directed us to leave. There was a lot of carnage—different from anything I’d experienced as a cop or detective, and I’d seen some terrible things. Being out of uniform, part victim and part responder, made it worse: There’s a sense of purpose and even invulnerability in uniform, and I didn’t feel either that day.
That sense of vulnerability was not just mine: It was pervasive, and seeped into the city and the country. For most Americans, the twelve years since Sept. 11 have been bewilderingly free of terrorism. Other parts of the world—Bali, Moscow, Madrid, Beslan, London, Mumbai and many more—have been victimized by violent extremism. And in some places—Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, for example—acts of terror have been horrifyingly ubiquitous. In America, however, many people would be hard pressed to recall specific incidents. Maybe they would mention Fort Hood, maybe the Times Square attempt. Otherwise, nothing.
The truth is more complicated. There have been many other incidents, some successful and some not, and plots galore. (New York City alone has seen at least sixteen.) And there are more tips and leads and potential malefactors than anyone can fully weigh, much less monitor: The TIDE terrorist database alone has hundreds of thousands of entries. Numerous law enforcement agencies, particularly the FBI and NYPD, have done a great deal to preempt and forestall many conspiracies. Cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement and government has been strong; It needs to be stronger still.
In the coming months, entities across the public service and public policy spectra will assess and react to the terror in Boston. Many of our classmates will be involved in that work. Terrorist incidents in the homeland are black swans: They are unlikely events whose rarity lends them disproportionate impact and makes rational analysis difficult. Although they carry real risks of engendering overreaction, it may be that when protecting people’s lives there is no such thing—so long as our laws and values remain intact. I do not speak for the NYPD in any official capacity, but the NYPD has navigated the line between security and freedom lawfully and, from an objective public-safety standpoint, successfully. In counterterrorism, New York’s efforts have avoided unacceptable tradeoffs between liberty and security. Nevertheless, New Yorkers look at things differently now. Before the Marathon, an abandoned bag in Penn Station meant something different than one in South Station. This is no longer the case.
This change has been felt in Boston, at Harvard, and, naturally, at MIT. By every account, from that of the MIT Chief of Police to those of MIT students and faculty, Officer Sean Collier was a model cop who embodied the idea that protecting a community means being a part of it. For those of us leaving this school who will help formulate reactions to the terror that occasioned his sacrifice, the challenge is to ensure that protecting the community means changing it as little as possible.