Protecting Soft Targets: At What Cost?

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Protecting Soft Targets: At What Cost?
By: Meredith Boyle

The April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and September 2013 Nairobi mall attack clearly demonstrated terrorists’ ongoing interest in attacks against civilian “soft targets,” meaning facilities or events that are unarmored or undefended. Though more terrorist organizations are now affiliated with al Qaeda than in 2001, few experts believe they have the capability to conduct large-scale, 9/11-style attacks against the U.S. homeland. Instead, current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri recently suggested that his organization’s followers, including “homegrown” supporters living in the United States, should undertake many, simple, small scale attacks.

Soft target attacks are of particular concern, especially during the holiday season as crowds swarm into undefended public spaces like malls and movie theaters. Recently, Commissioner Raymond Kelly of the New York Police Department warned of increased terror attacks at home and abroad, prompting some counties to increase counterterrorism patrols in local malls and train stations.

However, such attempts to secure or harden soft targets come with both an economic and societal cost. Implementing robust security measures—certainly on the scale that would be required to defend the 115,000 retail centers across the United States—is expensive. Drastically increasing security in public or semi-public spaces (e.g., malls, theaters, sporting events, schools) also presents numerous privacy concerns and may increase people’s feelings of discomfort as they come face-to-face with hardening measures, ranging from patrols and surveillance cameras to X-ray machines and searches.

The terrorist strategy of small-scale, unsophisticated attacks against soft targets raises critical questions. How much security does this threat warrant? At whatprice? How can we balance security, economic, and privacy requirements? Government officials, private-sector leaders, and the American public must grapple with these questions as the nation weighs the acceptable level of risk to soft targets in the context of Americans’ liberties and way of life.

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