- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Q&A with Juliette Kayyem

Summer 2013

Juliette Kayyem is a Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and member of the Belfer Center Board of Directors. She served as Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the first Obama administration and headed homeland security efforts for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Currently a columnist for the Boston Globe and analyst for CNN, she provided extensive analysis of the situation following the Boston Marathon bombings. We asked for her views on Boston’s response to the attack.

Q: We saw incredible images of spectators leaping over barriers and helping badly injured people after the bombings. Should we do more to teach emergency response to the general public?

There have been a lot of attempts in the past to do just that, including Red Cross and volunteer efforts, but since no one ever thinks they’re going to be called upon to do this, the incentive is not very strong. For example, there is the “72 on you” effort to encourage people to have enough supplies in their home for 72 hours. This has been difficult to promote in areas that don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes. Also, there’s a constant tension between wanting the public to be engaged but also recognizing that what makes this country great is that we’re not always worried about life or death issues. We just go on with our lives.

Q: Knowing the results from the bombings, how well was Boston prepared for this kind of crisis?

Boston was very prepared for an event like this, and I think you saw that in the immediate response. This was a high-security event, so we had the benefit of having all the resources down there, having trained together and prepared, and having even done a table-top exercise with a bomb going off. So, they had envisioned this happening. The response worked well in several ways: first of all, for life-saving measures. Another was the ability of the police and others to get the remaining marathoners off Boylston Street, away from the bombing area, calmly placing them on Commonwealth Ave., and then spending a lot of effort on reunification with family members who had been at the finish line. I was there immediately after the blasts, and it was calm, which in many ways is comforting. They planned this response ahead of time. And doing this, they preserved the crime scene for what was inevitably going to be an investigation; and they portrayed competency, another important part of response. It’s not just the immediate life and death issues; it’s a portrayal of grip in the midst of crisis. That’s hard to do, and I think they did that really successfully. I also believe that the leadership and tone of the key players, including Governor Patrick, were key in how the city felt in the days after.

Q: Was social media a plus or a minus during the crisis?

I think it was both; but it has its flaws just like regular mainstream media. This was a very social event, with young men who grew up here to a certain extent, who were part of the community, attacking what was a social event for the community. Social media can bring communities together in ways that television can’t, and I think that’s important.

Where social media really failed, and every media to some extent, is where it tried to replace the police officers in finding out who the specific culprits were. Now, if social media had been successful in this, it might have changed the way law enforcement thinks about it. But because there is no filtering aspect to social media, it’s like reading raw intelligence. It can help people get a sense of what’s going on, but should always be taken in the context that it is not filtered.

Q: Did the bombings change your thinking on the balance between security and liberty?

No. I know there’s a lot of debate, and I think it’s healthy, about the lockdown. With what they knew at that moment, it really was to me a no brainer. But, that doesn’t mean that next time it has to be done that way. I know some people are complaining about it, but there’s another way to look at this in terms of the civil liberties debate: the governor asked his community to voluntarily stay in place during a massive man hunt, and they did so, and that isn’t so bad.

Q: What should happen now?

We need to separate investigation from after-action. There’s an investigation going on about the younger brother, and it’s important to find out what happened and where these intelligence gaps were. But, that’s different from what should be part of every major security event—going back and learning from everything—from pre-Marathon security to post-blast response and into the lockdown. In our litigious society, we tend to view that as a bad thing, the going back and finding culpability; but it’s important. We’re safer today because we’ve learned from mistakes made in the past, and if we’re more secure in the future it will be because of lessons we’ve learned from this. I hope there will be an independent review of everything that happened. This is important not only for Boston, where we hope we don’t have to utilize the information, but for every city and state in the country that hosts or will host major events.

I am so often reminded of the book Columbine by Dave Cullen—written by a journalist who was there, who wrote stories about covering this crisis; it took him 10 years to really unearth the pieces of what actually happened. That’s why we should start a review process very soon, so that memories don’t fade, evidence is still there, and people are still in a place to remember what happened.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Q&A with Juliette Kayyem.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Summer 2013).