News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 18, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable.

When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day. When TV commercials showed O.J. Simpson running through an airport. Today’s teenagers have no memory of such things. Multiple locks secure most homes, and some have security systems. Schools employ guards to protect kids and educators. And Simpson could not sprint, leap and dodge his way through an airport these days for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the security checkpoints that would slow him down.

Granted, nostalgia tends to airbrush the past. Crime, terrorism and twisted minds are not 21st-century phenomenons.

Still, as one boundary in human civility after another falls and the list of unthinkable deeds grows shorter, Americans must reassess the ways we casually move about and experience life in a free culture.

In the wake of Monday’s sad, horrific bombings at the normally festive finish line of the Boston Marathon, I recalled what a tour guide at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., told me in the summer of 2011, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached. The woman, a Terre Haute native, had lived and worked on Capitol Hill for 17 years. She could remember riding her bike across the Capitol grounds to her job on clear days. Security restrictions prevent that now.

Library visitors must remove belts before entering. Scanners probe tourists at most official buildings. Bottles of water can’t be taken into the Capitol.

The specter of what could happen, made agonizingly apparent on 9/11, forced a transition. Waits, limits and inspections were the tradeoff for a sense of safety. Washington, and the nation, had to be prepared for hateful acts we once presumed could never happen here.

“It’s not something we are any more immune to because we live in this country,” she said, “and I think we’ve had to learn how to deal with that.”

Monday afternoon’s explosions in Boston claimed the young lives of three spectators, and maimed or injured more than 170 people. Bombs packed into kitchen pressure-cookers were stuffed into black bags and left on the ground, according to The Associated Press. Those killed or wounded were watching runners complete a fabled 26.2-mile race, a moment that should be a joyous, exhausting thrill of a lifetime. Marathons and other distance-running competitions let fans encounter the athletes close up. Onlookers line the route or key race points and shout encouragement to the runners.

Organizers of other major outdoor sporting events, which already have adopted stricter security, are re-evaluating their safety policies. As a result of the Boston bombing, changes in accessibility could come to activities that draw large, sprawling crowds such as the Kentucky Derby or the Indianapolis 500.

“I hope it doesn’t change things that much, but I think it does,” said Eric Dietz, director of the Purdue University Homeland Security Institute and former executive director of the Indiana Department Homeland Security.

“Think of the act of handing out water,” Dietz said Tuesday, referring to a tradition at marathons in which spectators reach out to hand paper cups of water to runners in mid-race.

The reconsiderations are proper, following a tragedy such as Monday’s, Dietz explained.

“There are hundreds of events each year where we say, ‘Are we doing the right things? Are we doing enough?’” he said. “That’s an appropriate reaction.”

Over time, tightened security measures get debated and some public desire to pull back could occur. That process of reflection “is only natural,” Dietz said.

Dietz was the first Indiana DHS executive director, serving from 2005 to 2008 and overseeing more than 300 public-safety employees. He earned two degrees from Rose-Hulman and a doctorate from Purdue, and retired as a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel in 2004. At Purdue, he teaches students studying to be teachers, pharmacists, veterinarians and other fields how to implement homeland security principles in their future jobs. Dietz also lectures about the balance between individual liberties and the desire for government protections to prevent atrocities such as Monday’s from happening again.

We’ll have to ask ourselves, how many restrictions are too many, or too few? When do security limits at public events become excessive and begin to erode the easy-going liberties we enjoy?

The mere posing of such questions is significant.

“As Americans, we get the choice of [deciding whether] we’re going to stay at home or go to these events,” Dietz said, “and that’s a good thing, that we get that choice.”

The knowledge of that freedom can help inspire tough, resilient Bostonians and the nation, as we keep the families of the victims in thoughts and prayers, and carry on together through the changes.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or