EDITORIAL: Lessons from Boston bombings

Tue, Apr 23, 2013 - Page 8

Recent acts of terrorism such as the Boston Marathon bombings and the explosive devices placed on the High Speed Rail (HSR) in Taiwan have fractured the fragile sense of security and social harmony overnight.

Given the difficulty of predicting such events, the government needs to make sure that preventative measures are in place and that it is prepared for any eventuality.

The increasing amount of sophisticated information available on the Internet has made building an explosive device or plotting a terrorist act relatively easy.

Hu Tsung-hsien (胡宗賢), one of the men allegedly responsible for placing the explosive devices on the train, reportedly found information on how to create an explosive device online.

People can plot terrorist acts anywhere, meaning that government institutions, industrial parks and public transportation such as the HSR, trains, the MRT system and airports are all potential targets. The government needs to make adequate provisions to prevent and deal with attacks on these places.

Fortunately, the explosive devices on the HSR were discovered in time and dealt with before they exploded. Nevertheless, HSR authorities did not cope well with the situation.

HSR stations are mostly in remote locations, and disaster response procedures were poorly conceived and implemented.

This was the first time the procedures were put to the test, and even HSR officials said that their response was too slow and far from ideal. As the area affected in the incident was just a train, one must wonder how authorities would handle an incident which affected a city, or an entire area, or even the whole nation.

However, the Boston authorities knew exactly what to do as soon as the explosions occurred. All unnecessary activities were halted, and the police and National Guard were mobilized to conduct traffic safety checks, not only to prevent another explosion, but also to attempt to apprehend the bombers. Other than that, work, school and business in the city went on as usual.

The following day, the city ordered trains and taxis to stop running, and told residents of Boston, where the explosions occurred; Cambridge, where police engaged the suspects in a shootout; Watertown, where the surviving suspect was finally captured; and neighboring towns and cities to remain indoors while the hunt went on.

The vast majority complied with this request. These emergency response procedures were implemented immediately after the incident happened.

Everyone involved knew what should be done, which reduced the risk of a breakdown in public order and prevented further casualties. Taiwan should take note — there is much to learn from this experience.

In the past, public security forces’ counterterrorist operations have been focused on external threats. The incident involving the explosive devices placed on the HSR and outside a legislator’s office in the capital has woken the government up to the risk of attacks by home-grown terrorists. It will need to rethink its counterterror plans and deployment of resources, as it will need to improve training to deal with these threats.

Regulations governing the protection of critical infrastructure are currently being drafted by the Executive Yuan’s Office of Homeland Security. This draft deals with risk assessments, isolating vulnerabilities and reinforcing defences in preparation for natural disasters or terrorist attacks. It is an important piece of disaster response and counter-terrorism legislation. It is imperative that the government and the legislature discuss it carefully, pass it and make sure it is properly implemented.