The impulse to help is a powerful weapon against terrorism

Updated
A second explosion goes off (rear) as a runner was blown to the ground by the first explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon.
A second explosion goes off (rear) as a runner was blown to the ground by the first explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Monday’s attack on the Boston Marathon drew many heroic reactions. After the blasts, people rushed towards the carnage to help the victims and police risked their lives to secure the scene.

There is no “hierarchy of heroism” here – just the human impulse to help, however you can. Now that’s happening in some unusual new ways.

Cherly Fiandaca is a lawyer who serves as chief of public information for the Boston Police Department. About an hour and a half after the bombing, Fiandaca announced that BPD was calling on spectators to share their videos from the race. Federal investigators are also asking people to submit photos and videos for its forensic review.  And the ATF agent leading the investigation made this appeal in Boston yesterday: “We are looking for the public’s cooperation. If there’s any video, any photographic evidence, if you can please contact the FBI hotline or the city’s hotline. We’d like to review any kind of media that you have out there.”

That was an unusual law enforcement request, Wired reported, and because the Marathon is so highly documented, it is ripe for what the magazine called “crowd sourced surveillance.

People have responded with a remarkable flood of pictures, photos and other information. Investigators now have three trillion bytes of data to sift through.

Fast Company magazine is heralding this co-operation as a new era of “bystander-generated” evidence. This is a significant development–and not only because it could help lead to a murderer hiding out after attacking innocent civilians and children. It also matters because this kind of co-operation disrupts a key goal of terrorism.

As researchers like Bruce Hoffman and Paul Berman have documented, terrorism is designed to achieve through fear what it cannot achieve through a conventional military campaign. It is designed to make all of us feel victimized, afraid and less committed to our open society.

We defeat that goal every time that we help each other and work together in response to an attack–from the physical heroism at the scene to the communal contributions made from afar.

Every person who submitted a photo has made a contribution. Alone, each item may be fairly useless. Together, the hundreds of thousands of items could inform a larger picture–a mosaic of intelligence–that could break open a lead in this case.

I wouldn’t call that “bystander-generated” evidence, and it’s certainly not “victim-generated” evidence. We’re not bystanders after we take action. And when we work together, we’re not defined by what happened–we are defined by what we’re doing. We become part of the investigation, part of the rebuilding, and part of an American tradition that does not seek vengeance–only justice.

The impulse to help is a powerful weapon against terrorism

Updated