Monday, December 9, 2013
-Traumatic events like the Boston Marathon bombing always make more sense in hindsight. We engage in a national analysis about what should have been done to stop this atrocious act, and what should be done to prevent something like it from happening again.
Everything from more surveillance cameras in public places to increased authority for law enforcement to track Internet activity to tighter management of people on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list has been presented as possible solutions.
But a more fundamental question should be whether stopping the Patriots Day attack would have been worth it.
That sounds like an easy one when you add up the one side of the ledger: four dead, including an 8-year-old boy and a police officer just doing his job, hundreds injured, dozens maimed, a century-old social institution disrupted.
But what about the other side?
Do you want to live in a country where the government keeps track of who people talk to and what they read? Do you want the government to detain anybody who looks dangerous and ignore their constitutional rights by questioning them without a lawyer? Do you want to live in a society where a tip from an oppressive government like Russia is enough to grab someone until he can prove his innocence?
Because that's what it would have taken to have prevented this attack and what it would take to stop it from happening again.
There is still a lot we don't know about the Tsarnaev brothers and what made them think it was a good idea to set off two bombs near the finish line at the Boston Marathon.
But preliminary information looks like these were not soldiers in an anti-American army, waiting for their moment to strike. They sound a lot like the alienated loners responsible for other inexplicable crimes, more like anti-social drifters Dick and Perry from "In Cold Blood" than the al-Qaida cell that pulled off 9/11.
More investigation might show that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was in contact with overseas terror groups that indoctrinated him and trained him to build bombs. But so far the stories emerging indicate something else.
Friends of Tsarnaev told The New York Times that it was getting dropped from the New England Golden Gloves boxing team in 2010 that sparked his interest in radical religious politics, not his trip to Russia last year. Tsarnaev couldn't box in the national tournament because he was not a U.S. citizen. He soon dropped out of college and started watching jihadist videos on the Internet.
If it's true that Tsarnaev was "self-radicalized" by things he read and watched, it's hard to see how we can use law enforcement to protect us from this kind of attack. That would mean tracking every click on the Internet and looking for patterns.
In March 2011, Russian security services sent a warning to the FBI, reporting that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was "a follower of radical Islam." Six months later, the Russians sent the same message to the CIA.
This has been seized on by critics of the Obama administration as proof that the American intelligence community failed to act to protect public safety.
But again, who would want to live in a country that would have been able to act based on the information that law enforcement was given?
The FBI interviewed Tsarnaev and his parents. They checked government databases and looked at his Internet activity. They put him on a watch list (along with more than 700,000 other people) and let him go.
Should they have put him under around-the-clock surveillance? Should they have put him in jail because Russia said so?
The truth of our world is that many people think and say crazy things. So many people read and comment on this type of material that it is not anything close to an accurate predictor of what they may do.
The hundreds of billions of dollars we have spent on security since 9/11 did not stop this attack. It would not have stopped the bombing attempts in Times Square in 2010 or on a Detroit-bound commercial flight on Christmas Day 2009. Both times, we were bailed out by incompetence.
Even authoritarian countries like Russia have terrorist attacks. What would it cost to eliminate the risk of these attacks here?
When we respond to events like the one in Boston, it's natural to look for someone to blame. In this case, it's easy -- blame the Tsarnaev brothers. They are the only ones who could have stopped this from happening.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at firstname.lastname@example.org