Wednesday, April 18, 2007

IF ONLY, part two...

In the days after 9/11, we were exhorted to stay vigilent and to report suspicious activity that might be indicative of an upcoming terror attack. Hotlines were set up to take calls from concerned citizens, highway signs (at least in Maryland, and I presume elsewhere) displayed 800 numbers for people to call if they saw something that concerned them. And while I don't know for sure, I presume law enforcement followed up on these calls and reports to determine whether there was something to the report or whether it was simply someone letting their imagination get a little carried away.

A number of months ago, in what is referred to as the case of the 'Flying Imams', airline passengers reported what they believed to be suspicious activity on the part of six Muslim clerics... and law enforcement showed up to investigate. And there have been other times where airline passengers reported suspicious activity and had law enforcement show up to check things out.

In these cases, people were concerned about the potential of violence and so, rather than sit and do nothing, they voiced their concerns and, in response, law enforcement showed up to look into whether there was sufficient reason to take action against those suspected of being up to no good. There may or may not have been anything going on, but it was far better for law enforcement to show up and make sure than for the passengers to have kept their fears to themselves only to find out that there was something going on.

This is the way it ought to be... society ought not play ostrich by sticking its hand in the proverbial sand and hiding and hoping that, if a terrorist attack takes place, it would take place somewhere else and to someone else. As Americans, we all have a duty to look out for one another.

Which... leads me to ask the question: should this concept be applied to other situations where harm to society might be prevented by a more aggressive intervention on the part of law enforcement?

Should those at Virginia Tech who, according to this headline, "lived in fear of campus gunman" have been more aggressive in passing along their concerns to school officials and campus police? Should the Administration and campus police been more aggressive in following up to see if there was anything to their fears? Should they have checked to see if he had purchased or had some type of access to guns? Should they have searched his room and computer to see if there was some type of indication that an attack of some kind was in the works? Should they have followed him and thus been in a position to keep him from following up the first shootings with the much more extensive second attack?

Unfortunately, just as up to 9/11, airline passengers weren't encouraged to be diligent, and thus couldn't be blamed for not taking action that could have prevented the attacks from taking place, up to now, society as a whole hasn't been encouraged to be diligent in looking for evidence that someone among them might be on the way to going off the deep end.

But if we want society to be on the lookout for activity that might be indicative of a terror attack, why should't we want people to report activity that, while not necessarily terroristic in nature, could be a prelude to an attack? People ought to feel free, perhaps even obligated to report suspicious activity and law enforcement ought to seriously look into these reports.

And if you argue that we don't want a nation full of informers, that we don't want people constantly in fear that someone is going to sic the police on them, then how do we justify being on the lookout for terrorists?

As for me, since I'd feel mighty appreciative if someone took action that helped keep an attack that hurt me and my loved ones from taking place, I feel I have - we all have - an obligation to do the same for others. To paraphrase and twist the old adage, 'tis better to falsely suspect 10 than to let one lunatic shoot up a school full of innocents'...

Or is it?