Hendrik Hertzberg writes: In Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece “Minority Report,” set in the year 2054 and released nine months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, homicide-squad detectives no longer spend their time tracking down people who have committed murder. Instead, they go after people who are about to commit murder, swooping down to stop them in the nick of time. Spielberg’s police officers don’t fight crime, they fight “Pre-Crime.” They don’t catch killers, they catch pre-killers.
The enormous anti-terror establishment that the United States has created in the years since 9/11 has a similar purpose. Its vast, sprawling, expensive array of governmental, quasi-governmental, and nominally private institutions and their tools—high tech, like ubiquitous surveillance cameras, satellites, wiretaps, computer algorithms, facial-recognition software, drones, and data collection and analysis on a global scale; lower tech, like networks of agents, bags of cash, and airport security checkpoints—are designed primarily to stop acts of terrorism before they happen. That turns out to be a good deal more difficult than investigating such an act once it occurs.
Or so it appears, judging from the contrast between the total unexpectedness of the Boston Marathon bombings, on April 15th, and the stunning speed with which the alleged (and there’s no reason to doubt the accuracy of the allegation) perpetrators were identified. Seventy-four hours after the carnage, we saw their pictures; eight hours after that, one was dead; six hours after that, we learned their names and perused their tweets and YouTube favorites; twelve hours after that, on the night of the fifth day, the second was in custody. To be sure, it was mainly traditional police work that solved the crime and cornered the criminals. But key clues—including two surveillance-camera images, culled from thousands, that were eventually found to be of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—were unearthed with the help of an all-pervasive, largely terror-sired security technosphere. [Continue reading…]