Can Technology Stop the Next Attack?

By now the events of 15 April 2013 are indelibly etched in our collective memory, as are the events of the subsequent days that led to the capture of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. This episode of NOVA, which aired earlier this year, recounts the bombing as well as the, well, manhunt that followed in great detail, explaining how current technology played a critical role in the search and capture process.

Within moments of the explosions at the Boston Marathon that spring morning, the search for the culprits began. Throughout the course of the search law enforcement would use facial recognition, thermal imaging, and bomb analysis in hopes of narrowing the range of suspects. As is often the case, our imagination of how those technologies work and how they actually work leave a gap.

This installment of NOVA features interview footage with Van Romero (among others, of course), a leading explosives expert, who trained many of the first responders present on the day of the Boston bombing. Romero, who works in New Mexico, explains that although he relates to such events on an emotional level he also quickly moves to his analytical mind. A crater, white smoke, or the extent to which property is damaged in the area of the detonation ultimately tells him a great deal about what kind of explosive device has likely been used.

We visit Romero at New Mexico Tech University where he’s employed at the most active facility for explosives testing in the country. It’s there, in those sands, to examine evidence in the wake of both the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing in the ’90s. Terrorist bombs, he explains, create one kind of mess because they tend to be homemade, pieced together with items you might find at your local department store––and a whole lot of gunpowder. These pressure-cooker bombs are more common, he notes, in the Middle East than in the US, telling experts something about who might have made the bombs or where they might have trained to do so.

Investigators also relied on video of the scene, gathering material from virtually any source that may have capture a glimpse of something related to the bombing. Boston, unlike New York City, does not have a centralized video surveillance system, so law enforcement had to employ footage and still photographs from private citizens in their investigatory efforts.

We’re led through the process, essentially step-by-step, as law enforcement works to examine some of this footage and seek out possible suspects. With face recognition technology, investigators can get close but not as close as one might see in the latest espionage thriller, to identifying a potential perpetrator. In the absence of official word on the investigation, social media users began to create their own scenarios, which in this case saw users on Reddit examining images and opining on who they thought might be the best suspects.

By now we all know the outcome of these events, how the actual suspects (Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan, who died on 19 April) were pursued, etc. and so forth. And maybe that’s one of the problems with this episode. Although it is very much the role of news programs such as this one to report and explain events we also arrive at the point of saturation fairly quickly with contemporary media. Programs promising “never before seen footage” hone in on a minute here or a minute there, surrounding the new with the all-too-familiar. In 20 years, when the events of 15 April and the following days have further receded in our memories and when a new generation has sprung up that did not see all this unfold, the story will be ready for a new telling. Until then, we have, more or less, seen it all.

Of course, NOVA makes even the most mundane and familiar material at least somewhat exciting. If this isn’t the best episode in the series, it still outranks what many others in TV have tried to do with the same material.

RATING 6 / 10