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Lessons not learned in Boston

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By Froma Harrop
Published:
Airport gift shops throughout New England are piling "Boston Strong" T-shirts in vivid colors. "Boston Strong" became a rallying cry of solidarity after the terrorist bombing last year at the Boston Marathon.
As the anniversary of the attack — and the next race on April 21 — approaches, emotional coverage of the event and aftermath is reaching feverish levels. A multipage spread in The Washington Post, "How Boston Stayed Strong," heaves with charged language: "harrowing," "carnage," "horrific."
So it's really odd to see these pained reminiscences alternating with rebukes of a National Security Agency surveillance program designed to prevent such assaults. Actually, the disconnect is something to behold.
One hears Rep. William R. Keating, D-Mass., complaining that federal agencies could have prevented the bombing. They did not heed warnings from Russian intelligence that one of the suspected bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was becoming radicalized.
But nine months earlier, Keating voted for the Amash amendment, which would have closed down the NSA's collection of phone and other records. (It bears repeating that the agency may not listen in on the actual content of such communications without a court order.)
Fortunately, it was defeated by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats ready to brave the hysteria — unleashed by ambitious populists and conformist media too lazy to examine the realities of national security in the age of widespread spy technology and terrorists armed with explosive devices far scarier than weaponized pressure cookers.
So what will it be? Are Americans to rely on Russian spies, with their own agendas, to keep them safe? By the way, the Russian security apparatus is famously insensitive about people's privacy.
OK, but what good is the NSA program if it didn't catch the Tsarnaev brothers before they acted? Bad question. The agency doesn't "see" everything.
"No, NSA ops should not have been expected to 'catch' Tsarnaev online, because that's just not how NSA does its job," John Schindler, intelligence expert at the U.S Naval War College and former analyst at the NSA, told me.
"(The) FBI would have had to have tipped NSA off first, as seems not to have happened. Ball to FBI."
The NSA said it did use the program to rule out the likelihood of a second strike in New York City.
Meanwhile, Americans must better steel themselves against terrorism. Only three people died in the marathon bombing. I hesitate to use the word "only,'' because every death was a tragedy, and dozens of others were grievously wounded.
But during this month's Afghan elections, at least 47 people were killed. And terrorists across the globe are massacring innocents by the dozens on a daily basis.
When a cafe is bombed in Israel, the blood is immediately scrubbed away, and shattered windows are replaced. By the next day, the place is open again for business. Shrugging it off lessens the bombers' reward in inflicting pain.
By contrast, Boston virtually shut down for days after the bombing. Cellphone service choked. Bostonians were rushed indoors. There was no Amtrak and almost no taxis. Schools and businesses closed.
Of course, the NSA should not be allowed to do anything it wants. Nor should we ignore the potential for abuse, given the march of progress in photo recognition software, DNA analysis and such.
But that Americans are shuffling aside the memory of Sept. 11, 2001 — the outrage that launched the NSA program —- is a wonder. The idea that we are magically protected seems a weird offshoot of "American exceptionalism."
Deep thinking on how we can confront the threat of terrorism is in order for the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. Grown-ups can work with nuance.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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