After the Boston bombings, returning to our post-9/11 rituals

In the two months after 9/11, I called Baltimore County police to check out a black-and-tan backpack left by an office door in Towson, reported an abandoned carry-on bag at BWI to Maryland State Police and refused to watch a bulky valise for a stranger who wanted to leave it with me while he went to the restroom at the airport.

Anyone who lived through 9/11 remembers those days of hyper-vigilance. And if that uncomfortable state of mind ever left us as the years went by, it certainly returned last week. That was my thought when the FBI revealed the video of those two young men with backpacks on Boylston Street in Boston.

I had another thought — that they looked like any two young guys you might see on any given day in Boston, that big college town.

And that was followed by another thought, after the nation's latest nightmare ended Friday night:

Can two young men, Chechen by heritage but more than a decade removed from that tormented Russian republic, and seemingly Americanized, become radicalized enough to kill innocent citizens in their adopted country? The answer is clearly yes, and it's the most disturbing take-away from the events of the last week.

"There's no doubt that people can become radicalized about an issue without having ever personally experienced it or been personally victimized by it," says Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama (and Park School alumnus) whose book, The Myth of Matrydom, provides fascinating insight into the world of mass killers and suicide bombers. "Yes, people can become radicalized from afar."

Reason and logic says that if the brothers Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston bombers, had a genuine grievance in the name of the Chechen people, it should have been with Russia, not the United States. In recent years, Chechen terrorists have directed their hatred — and their bombs — at Moscow and the government with which they fought two atrocious wars.

But, of course, I am trying to apply reason and logic to something grotesque and wantonly violent, which is part of the ritual of aftermath. It's what we did after 9/11. It's what we do each time the nation experiences a devastating mass killing, by gun, bomb or airplane.

The only consolation — if we can call it that — is that more of our fellow citizens were not killed or injured in Boston. I guess this is the "now and future world" we came to expect after 9/11, where terrorists would keep trying to bring grievances to our streets — just as they bring them, with ferocious regularity, to the streets of other countries.

Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Maryland Democrat who serves as ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke with some confidence last week that an attack on the scale of 9/11 could not happen again.

He mentioned Anwar al-Awlaki, the American who became an imam associated with al-Qaida and who recruited terrorists to attack the United States in the years since 9/11. Among his recruits was the "underwear bomber" who tried to blow up an airliner in Michigan in 2009. Awlaki is gone, killed in a drone attack in Yemen in 2011.

While other terrorist commanders like him are out there, Ruppersberger believes it will be difficult for them to coordinate a large-scale attack on the U.S.

"Intelligence is the best defense we have," Ruppersberger said. "The FBI is the best investigative group we have in the world; they know what they're doing. [Terrorists] know we have the sophistication now to stop a major attack. We're going to get info from chatter, we're going to get info from different sources. It's going to be very difficult for another 9/11 attack."

But ...

"We have always been concerned in the intelligence community about the lone wolf, that individual who is under the radar," Ruppersberger said.

He made that remark after the Boston Marathon bombings, before the brothers Tsarnaev were identified as suspects. The elder of the two, according to The New York Times, was interviewed by the FBI in 2011 when a foreign government asked the bureau to determine whether he had extremist ties. Obviously, someone somewhere, possibly Russian security, had Tamerlan Tsarnaev on the radar. The FBI says it found no linkage between the brother and extremist groups, according to CBS.

What happened there sounds like a question for Ruppersberger's committee.

A question for the rest of us goes something like this: Can we expect the FBI and other intelligence agencies, acting within post-9/11 law and with all post-9/11 sophistication, to foresee every possibility in a nation of more than 300 million?

"When we have individuals trained to make bombs — and, by the way, you can get that on the Internet — that is our biggest concern," Ruppersberger said. "And it's where the public needs to be involved."

Which means it's back to watching for abandoned bags as a way of American life.

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