"Untilfurther notice, we will suspend all meetings related to the reunion. I will be back in touch later this morning.
Please stay safe.” By the time that mail came in from Dr. Kathleen Molony at exactly 7am last Friday, I was already by the television, watching the unfolding drama. About 30 minutes earlier, an announcement had been made that the entire city of Boston and surrounding towns like Cambridge, Watertown etc. were on lockdown.
I arrived the US last Wednesday evening for a three-day “Fellows Alumni Reunion and Conference” of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs (WCFIA) where I had spent the 2010/11 academic session. The planning for the programme with the theme “Searching for Balance in an Unstable World” actually started two years ago and everybody had looked forward to it. However, in the days preceding the conference, there were apprehensions about whether it would still go ahead given the terror attack at the Boston Marathon last week Monday but the university authority decided it should.
Drawing participants from 27 countries, including those who were fellows at the Centre as far back as the seventies and eighties, the event had an upbeat mood last Thursday morning. But it was also evident that the marathon tragedy had cast a long shadow. Over the years, the Boston marathon, (started in 1897 and the oldest of such events in the world) had become almost like a festival with participants running for all manner of reasons: for charity, for love, to make a point etc. So the feeling of angst over the attack was understandable for Bostonians who felt that their city, which draws people from all over the globe, had been violated.
Notwithstanding, the reunion proper began last Thursday afternoon when three Harvard PhD candidates were invited to share with us the summaries of their research dissertations. The first, on China, was not as fascinating for me as it was for many others but I paid closer attention to the second. Titled “Inside Autocracy: Opposition Alliances, Fraud and Focal Moments” with Republic of Congo as a case study, the young scholar had spent considerable time in the country in the course of his doctoral research, and had seen how President Denis Sassou Nguesso corrupts and weakens the opposition. It is an insightful research work which goes to the root of politics in many African countries, including Nigeria. The third dissertation was on how statelessness affects economic dispossession with Palestine as a case study. Though not a Palestinian herself, the Phd candidate bowled everybody over with the manner of her presentation as she discarded the projector in preference for a simple story telling.
At the reunion dinner later Thursday evening, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, Joseph Nye (of the Soft Power fame) was keynote speaker and he shared with us interesting perspectives from his coming book, another offering on power. The dinner ended around 9pm and before we departed, I exchanged pleasantries with General Abdulrahman Dambazzau, former Chief of Army Staff, who is currently a Fellow at the centre. The mood was convivial and we were all to resume Friday morning for breakfast but shortly after we dispersed, the tragic drama began to unfold, first with the killing of a policeman at MIT, then a car hijack and then the hot pursuit of the two terror suspects by the police.
By the next morning, the Governor of Massachusetts and the Mayors of Boston and Watertown had decided on a lockdown in the bid to nab the fleeing suspect. That prompted the Weatherhead Director, Dr Kathleen Molony, to send an early morning warning. By 9am there was another message from Kathleen cancelling all our reunion sessions for the day. She added rather ominously, “for the time being, however, like you, especially you, since you are on the most affected areas, I will not venture out.”
The next mail from Kathleen was full of regrets: “Words cannot express how sad I feel right now. You have travelled great distances and have taken valuable time from your busy schedules to come together this week. We prepared for every contingency -- or so we thought. I am so very, very sorry.” Then at about 10am, there was a message from Harvard University: “Events continue to unfold in the ongoing law enforcement search for an armed and dangerous suspect in an area not far from the Cambridge/Allston campus. The governor and law enforcement have urged people in Boston, Cambridge, Waltham, Watertown and several other nearby towns to stay inside. Given the ongoing nature of the investigation and public safety concerns, Harvard University will remain closed all day Friday.”
Since the local television channels were all hooked to the story, it was easy to follow the tragic drama. In the course of the day, a definitive portrait of the two Tsarnaev brothers had begun to emerge but all the teenagers who spoke on television were of the view that the younger Tsarnaev (Dzhokhar) they knew did not fit the profile of the fleeing 19 year-old marathon bomber. But by nightfall, the suspense was over when the suspect was eventually captured inside a boat.
Now, I have read several Nigerian commentators making comparison between our country and the United States because of the manner in which the Boston marathon terror investigation was handled. But I do not believe the correct parallel is being drawn. However, there are sufficient lessons we can all learn from the way the American people and their authorities handled the Boston marathon bombing. The first lesson is about the sense of community and the role of social media. Not only did the people of Boston rally after the tragedy, everybody who had one recording or another was ready and willing to share with the police. Since intelligence is key to such investigations, the authorities had more than enough information to work with in the days after the incident but it must also be noted that following on such leads and sifting the wheat from the chaff required a certain level of professionalism that is exemplary.
The second lesson is that despite the usual tension between the media and the security agencies, the American authorities were able to collaborate in pursuit of a common goal. With television cameras everywhere and reporters swarming the entire landscape of Watertown last Friday, the rule of engagement was that in certain critical places, live television feeds would be delayed for broadcast by some minutes so that if the suspect was watching, he would not be tipped off about what was happening around him.
The third lesson is about the synergy between the security agencies from federal, states and local levels as they all worked seamlessly together with none trying to undermine the other to score any cheap advantage. In the fourth lesson we could see the American commitment to upholding their sacred values even under a most difficult situation. Following the arrest of suspect number two, concerns were expressed as to whether he was availed his “Miranda rights”, the usual warning given by law enforcement agents that whatever an arrested suspect says could be used against him or her in criminal proceedings--which could then compel the person to clamp up until a lawyer was available. That anybody would be thinking of the right of such a suspect may appear crazy but that is one of the things that make America exceptional.
The fifth lesson was the cost of the operation. To practically close down almost a whole state in the bid to apprehend just one criminal suspect not only shows the importance attached to law and order but in a way also says a lot about the premium placed on innocent lives since the lock-down was predicated on the fact that the man being hunted was armed and deemed dangerous both to himself and the society.
The sixth and a very significant lesson: the American society has its own fault-lines, albeit disguised, given the tone of discussions in certain quarters following the revelation of the identity of the suspects. There were also political opportunism on display over whether or not the suspect should be tried as an “enemy combatant” as well as lapses in the course of investigations. For instance, no fewer than four innocent persons were already “convicted” by a section of the mass media based on spurious allegations that emanated from the security agencies.
The seventh and perhaps the biggest lesson is the place of human intelligence in criminal investigation. Not only was the suspect found outside the perimeter set by the security agencies, the drama climaxed only after the lock-down had been officially lifted. So at the end, it was not technology that found the suspect, it was just a restless resident who, tired of being at home all day, decided to venture out only to see a blood trail that eventually led him to the boat inside which the wounded suspect was huddled. But his next line of action, calling the authority, was an act of trust that when he played his part, those charged with law and order would also be there to complete the job.
All said, nobody can take away the fact that the American justice system works. The challenge for our country was therefore the subject of a conversation last Sunday between my host, Harvard Professor Jacob Olupona, his colleague, Professor Biodun Jeyifo and Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede of Obafemi Awolowo University who is currently (on sabbatical) as a Visiting Professor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. The conclusion from the informal interaction was that for a society to be safe, secure and prosperous, it would take those in authority being alive to their onerous responsibilities and members of the society not only holding them to account but also playing their own roles.
The ultimate lesson is that whenever some citizens nurse morbid grievances, the state should be able to confront such challenge by using the instrumentality of the law. That was the message the United States’ Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was sending last week with its statement that while thousands of both Muslims and Christians have been killed in our country since 1999, “the Nigerian government’s failure to prosecute perpetrators only encourages reprisals and intensifies local tensions and mistrust.”
Without prejudice to the ongoing efforts aimed at addressing certain peculiar security problems in our country, the fact remains that dealing with terror is a law and order issue. We must therefore begin to build the capacity for bringing such criminals to justice without innocent citizens being made sitting targets for extermination in the process.