The bombings in Boston and the foiled plot to derail a train in Canada are fresh reminders that this is an age in which people might be aroused at any moment by news of another attack on security. They are the latest proof that we have entered an age of perpetual risk, requiring a state of permanent watchfulness.
It is not a comfortable place to be, but it is the present reality of a volatile world. At any given time, there are those who are plotting an attack, with varying degrees of wherewithal to pull one off.
The bombings at the Boston Marathon appear to have been the impulsive work of two brothers acting without any formal assistance or sponsorship. As such, it is difficult to refer to what they did as an act of terrorism, at least not with a capital "T." Nonetheless, the havoc they brought was substantial, not only in terms of their proximate victims, but to the nation's psyche.
In many ways more troubling is the plot, gratefully foiled, to attack a Canadian passenger train near Toronto. Authorities have arrested two suspects in that case for allegedly receiving support from organized al Qaida operatives in Iran. If that charge is true, it would mark the first known example of a planned attack on western soil by terrorists working in Iran.
We can be heartened that the Marathon bombers were identified and apprehended quickly, and that Canadian and U.S. intelligence operatives were able to uncover the Toronto plot before it could reach fruition. Comforting as that may be, it is also disquieting. In both cases, resolution came in part because this is now a world in which constant surveillance of civilian activities and communications is accepted as an essential part of a domestic shield.
The brothers in Boston were captured on tape by one or more in a ubiquitous array of video cameras poised over virtually every public thoroughfare or gathering place. The Canadian suspects were caught in the electronic dragnet that allows intelligence agencies to monitor suspicious communications conducted over virtually any platform, 24 hours a day.
Civil libertarians are justifiably wary of the encroaching nature of domestic surveillance and its potential to intrude upon individual privacy. Homeland security experts counter that it is a vital tool against terrorism and if anything, they say, surveillance capabilities should be expanded, not cut back.
As a society, we have come to the nexus in that balancing act between personal liberty and national security. It is comforting to know that an extensive surveillance apparatus exists to protect us against attack. It is discomforting to know that we are all under its gaze.
It gives rise to perhaps the most important social, legal and political question of this generation – just where do we find balance between the need to be secure from attack, and at the same time, from unwarranted intrusion? It is more critical than ever to remain vigilant at both ends of the scale.