Drawing Together When Bombs Go Off: Building Community Resilience in the 21st Century

I was leaving one of my last classes in graduate school on a sunny Monday afternoon. By any measure, it had been an unremarkable day. Then I turned on my phone and saw that I had a record-breaking fifty-six texts and missed calls:

“Are you okay?”

“Tell me you weren’t at the marathon.”

“I swear, if you don’t text me back right now and let me know that you’re okay. . .”

“You’re not at the finish line, right?”

I was baffled until I entered the forum of our building and saw CNN on the screen: it was April 15th in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and someone had set off a bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We all saw it on the national news, but I saw many of the events unfold in the blocks around my sleepy corner of Cambridge.

I heard the gunfire at MIT and watched the pursuit hurtle past. I watched the bomb squad move into the Tsarnaev residence. I talked to officers who had been up all night. One woman, a reporter for a national news outlet, just wanted a shower and a nap but couldn’t have either because her house was inside the perimeter. It was a hot and muggy day, the helicopters never stopped circling, and we all waited nervously for the next round of sirens. I remember being intensely grateful for the professionals who worked feverishly while we waited for the all-clear. Every conversation I had that day centered around one question: what can you do about such senseless violence?

The events in the Boston area in 2013 had an unusually large scope, but most instances of violent extremism on U.S. soil are more limited. Since Al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington D.C. in 2001, most jurisdictions have recognized the imperative to plan for events that we desperately hope will never happen. With more recent events in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs, there has been a renewed call for action against the violent extremism of 21st-century America. Much of the burden of this work will fall to local law enforcement.

Local law enforcement agencies are the first responders to violent extremism, responsible for stabilizing the scene, minimizing casualties, and initiating investigations. Local law enforcement agencies are also uniquely positioned in noncrisis situations to lead community outreach efforts, both to help communities develop resilience against radicalization and to assist with developing pathways to desistance from radicalization. Such efforts must be undertaken with great care to protect the civil liberties of community members and with an emphasis on evidence-based practice. This is a tall order for most law enforcement agencies, and the federal government is ramping up its efforts to support departments in combatting violent extremism.

On January 8th, 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly announced the formation of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Task Force, an effort in which the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS OFFICE) will be participating. The task force was formed in order to centralize and streamline CVE work at the federal level. Improved communication will eliminate redundant efforts and enable dissemination of new findings from federal agencies and partners. The task force will support research and analysis, communication and messaging, technical assistance, and the development of novel interventions. The task force will advance practices to counter violent extremism from the federal level in order to empower change at the local level. This is a critical objective as violent extremism, though felt nationally, happens locally.

When the shelter-in-place order was lifted on April 19th, 2013, we emerged tentatively from our homes. We walked up and down the streets that had so recently been blocked off with emergency vehicles. There was a palpable sense of relief and defiance. We smiled and nodded at strangers, we collected with people we cared about, and we tried to reclaim part of the neighborhood for ourselves, eating outside on patios and porches as if to prove that we were no longer afraid. It was the strongest sense of community that I’d felt in my time in Cambridge. I remember feeling sad that it had taken such violence to bring the neighborhood together. My friends and I asked each other, “What can we do try to prevent such senseless violence?” The answer we arrived at was threefold: “Rebuild the community stronger. Smile at a few more strangers. Be nicer to first responders.”

Sarah Estill
Staff Writer and Social Science Analyst
The COPS Office

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