Terrorism is a tactic that has proven to be successful because it exploits basic economics. Two individuals with a couple of pressure cookers and some explosives placing an entire region under martial law can be considered nothing more than a successful attack. What made this response possible, in part, is the increasing centralization of security in the United States.
During the early days of the United States the founders envisioned a militia system, akin to what Switzerland has today, where the average person was armed and received basic military training. Between then and now the country transitioned from a militia system to a centralized standing army. Along with this transition have come many consequences. Thanks to its standing army the federal government began to enjoy the ability to crush any opposition, which it used to on several individual states that decided the whole Union thing wasn’t working out for them. As the advocates of a militia system predicted the existence of a standing army lead to tyranny. The establishment of tyranny is only one consequence of a standing army however. Another aspect that is seldom discussed is the sheer cost involved in maintaining a permanent military class.
Military spending for the United States has reach absurd levels. Nobody should be surprised by that, centralized systems are notoriously inefficient. The United States has further compounded its error by transforming the domestic police force into a standing army as well. America has changed a lot since the almost stateless Frontier was, well, a frontier [PDF]. Before the militarization of the police there existed an actual security market, which provided security at a much cheaper rate and with better results. In most cases of trouble the general population was armed sufficiently to deal with the matter. In cases where the general populace was unable or unwilling to deal with troublesome matters professional mercenaries would be hired. If a community was large enough to warrant a full time peacekeeper the townsfolk would come together to hire a sheriff, who would rely on the armed townsfolk for any matters he could not handle himself.
This decentralized system had many advantages. First, it was efficient. Resources only needed to be invested in security when problems occurred. When a professional police class exists they must be paid year around regardless of whether or not trouble exists. Even in today’s world police spend most of their time dealing with victimless “crimes” like exceeding the arbitrarily posted speed limit, parking in places posted as no parking zones, and the consumption of certain plants. Crimes involving victims are exceedingly rare so without victimless “crimes” the average police officer would be paid to, quite literally, stand around and do nothing.
The second advantage of a decentralized system is that the cost of committing crimes increases. Under a centralized system where only professional police officers are likely to be armed the cost of committing a crime against non-police officers is relatively low. If I wanted to rob my neighbor’s home I am reasonable sure I would encounter little, if any, resistance. Under a decentralized system more people are likely to be armed and training to use arms because there is no centralized entity they can put their faith in. If I wanted to rob my neighbor’s home under a decentralized system I would be more likely to encounter resistance, which would increase the cost of performing the act and likely discourage me from doing so.
Advantage number three is that a decentralized system relies primarily on individuals familiar with an area. This point was prominently made during the entire Boston fiasco. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wasn’t found by the police, he was found by a homeowner who noticed the tarp over his boat was amiss. The homeowner was familiar with the area, unlike many of the police officers brought in to deal with the situation. That knowledge allowed him to find the perpetrator even when the police could not. Familiarity with an area is invaluable when searching for a suspected wrongdoer. While a person unfamiliar with an area is unlikely to notice a small out of place detail a person who is familiar with the area is likely to take note if they’re actively searching for somebody.
Another advantage is that people are more likely to take interest in the affairs of friends, family members, and neighbors. If you rob, assault, or murder somebody you can be reasonably assured that your victim’s friends, family members, and neighbors are going to be none too happy with you. In general people don’t like to see those they like suffer harm. Police officers, especially those not from the afflicted area, are less likely to have an emotional investment in solving a crime.
When you combine these advantages you have a system that can deal with incidents like the Boston bombing in a much less resource intensive manner. The suspect is more likely to be found quickly due to everybody’s familiarity with the area, the resources needed to defend against the bomber are spread out amongst the armed populace instead of centralized by a single organizations, those with an emotional investment will be the ones seeking the perpetrator, and the crime may not have occurred in the first place because the cost of doing so would have been higher.