Lessons Learned from the Boston Marathon Bombing Tragedy

April 24, 2013
by Doug Gavel

The rapid and effective response to the Boston Marathon bombings attests to the region's emergency planning and preparedness efforts. That is one conclusion of a new paper co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) faculty members Arnold Howitt and Herman "Dutch" Leonard, who serve as faculty co-directors of the HKS Program on Crisis Leadership.

"It is painfully clear that we cannot prevent every possible attack of this kind on our homeland – nor rely on prevention as our only strategy," the authors write. "Of course, we can and should continue to figure out better means of prevention. But we also need to prepare ourselves – and this means both to prepare ourselves to respond in the moment and to recover swiftly and surely after any attack."

The authors argue that preparation for terrorist attacks is crucial, but no amount of preparation will be completely foolproof.

"We observe, then, that if we wish to maintain our free and open society and wish to continue to have open-access events like the Boston Marathon – which is by its fundamental design and character intrinsically vulnerable in the modern environment – then we will be at risk for damage from small-scale, low-tech attacks by terrorists who are legal residents," they write.

Howitt and Leonard commend law enforcement authorities and emergency response crews for their quick action in the immediate aftermath and in the days following the attacks. They also credit the Boston-area medical system for handling the needs of survivors as well as it did, while observing that a larger scale attack would tax the capacities of local hospitals.

"As a society," the authors write, "we best honor the memory of those who died or were injured by refusing to be intimidated by those who murdered or maimed them – or by others who might attempt similar attacks in the future. Part of resilience is helping people to heal – but another part is a willingness to accept a certain level of risk in order to enjoy the freedoms of our way of life."

Herman B. "Dutch" Leonard is George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management at the Kennedy School and Eliot I. Snider and Family Professor of Business Administration and Cochair of the Social Enterprise Initiative at Harvard Business School. He teaches leadership, organizational strategy, crisis management, and financial management.

Arnold M. Howitt is Executive Director of the Roy and Lila Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS, with responsibility for its executive education and research programs. He also co-directs the Program on Crisis Leadership, jointly sponsored by the Ash Center and the Taubman Center for State and Local Government.

Professor Dutch Leonard

Herman "Dutch" Leonard, George F. Baker, Jr. Professor of Public Management

"As a society," the authors write, "we best honor the memory of those who died or were injured by refusing to be intimidated by those who murdered or maimed them – or by others who might attempt similar attacks in the future. Part of resilience is helping people to heal – but another part is a willingness to accept a certain level of risk in order to enjoy the freedoms of our way of life."

Photograph of Arn Howitt

Arnold Howitt, Executive Director of the Roy and Lila Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS


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