Thomasson: Boston Marathon bombings were preventable

Investigators comb through the post finish line area Investigators comb through the post finish line area of the Boston Marathon at Boylston Street, two days after two bombs exploded just before the finish line in Boston. (April 17, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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A reader chided me for writing, in a column following the Senate's rejection of gun-control legislation, that most of the recent high-profile atrocities committed with firearms could have been prevented. He most emphatically said I was full of it, or words to that effect.

What I was posing was the theory that had stricter background checks been in place, they might have deterred, if not denied, access to the weapons used in such massacres as Virginia Tech, the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In all, there were clear warnings about the stability of the culprits. While all three legally had obtained the weapons they used, in all cases there was ample evidence to warrant an intervention.

The Virginia Tech shooter might have been stopped from buying his guns had his mental problems been caught by a more diligent background check enhanced by a better reporting system. A psychiatric evaluation showing that the Aurora mass murderer was dangerous somehow fell through the cracks. The mother of the Sandy Hook killer aided and abetted him by buying him weapons, despite the obvious signs of his mental detachment. It cost her her life. All of these things were preventable.

Now there is growing indication that the FBI missed signs that at least one of the two young men thought to have committed the Boston bombing was showing radical and dangerous tendencies. Russian authorities expressed this when the older of the suspects and brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, visited there. While the bureau reportedly interviewed the older Tsarnaev, at least twice at the behest of the Russians, they found no terrorist connections. The 26-year-old was killed in a firefight with police early Friday morning.

In fairness to the bureau, it was an easy mistake to make in a society that, despite the new awareness of potential terrorism, is still guided after all by civil rights and the outcry that ensues when it seems authorities are overstepping their bounds. Although we ask for the utmost diligence in these cases, there has to be probable cause for action. In Tsarnaev's case the agents could find none and so let the matter drop. Their interviews, however, apparently delayed his petition for citizenship. There is a fine line between security and protection of liberties.

Still, one can wonder whether J. Edgar Hoover's bureau would have put Tsarnaev under surveillance whether or not there was reason to do so. The FBI in those days of anti-communist fervor took steps that ultimately caused it embarrassment and demands for its reform. An FBI operation known as COINTELPRO, since discredited, was set up to spy on young Americans.

Learning the lessons from its failure to carry out due diligence that might have prevented the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America, the FBI has since been able to thwart until now any serious terrorist threats. In the case of 9/11, intransigent FBI superiors ignored agents' concerns that several suspicious Middle East figures were taking flying lessons. Further pursuit of the information possibly, some think probably, would have disclosed information leading to the existence of the airliner plot.

Investigators plan to grill the remaining suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, seriously wounded as police closed in, to determine his motivation, whether there was a larger conspiracy and whether there are foreign participants and other domestic suspects out there. Tsarnaev was wounded in the throat and for the moment can't speak, but reportedly is answering questions in writing. In the meantime, the full instigative force of several federal agencies and laboratories will be digging, again as we say, diligently.

Remembering that it always is easy to see what might have been after the fact, there are certain actions that are so clearly definable as "should have" that one can only believe that fate intervened. Among these might have been the fact that the older of the brothers had shown jihadist leanings on the Internet and other activities that had alerted authorities from his own country, Russia, and as a consequence this nation.

That, it seems to me, put the horror visited on Boston as clearly in the "preventable" class.

Dan Thomasson is a columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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