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PD Editorial: Public's role in combating terrorism defined — again

Lt. Mike Murphy of the Newton, Mass., fire department carries an American flag down the middle of Boylston Street after observing a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 22, one week before.

Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 22, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.

Based on this nation's political dialogue since 9/11, one might conclude that the only thing that has separated America from another terrorist attack are airport screenings, drones, water-boarding and the diligence of the Department of Homeland Security. But recent history shows that the biggest thing that stands between the American public and domestic acts of terrorism is the American public itself.

Not since passengers of United Flight 93 teamed up to prevent a hijacked Boeing 757 from being used as one more weapon of mass destruction was the public's defensive role demonstrated more clearly than in Boston last week.

Law enforcement authorities deserve the praise they received from cheering crowds after Friday's arrest of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, in Watertown, Mass. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed during a shootout with police earlier in the day. The younger Tsarnaev was charged Tuesday while still in the hospital.

But as the story unfolds of what transpired between the bombings of April 15 and the gun battle and arrest four days later, it's clear little of it could have happened without the broad support of the public.

Within moments of the twin bombings tips and evidence began to pour in, officials say. In an age of social media — and a camera on every phone — there was no shortage of documentation available to assist in the investigation. Images from surveillance cameras from banks, restaurants and other private businesses also proved pivotal.

From all of this, authorities were able to identify two key suspects, one in a black cap and one in a white one, who dropped off knapsacks containing the lethal pressure-cooker bombs. But being unable to identify them by name, they turned once again to the public.

Within minutes of the photos being released, tips again starting coming in. Police say that is when the hunt began to accelerate. Investigators were aware they were taking a risk in releasing the photos of the suspects, knowing it could put them to run and perhaps put more lives in danger. This proved to be the case as the bombers are suspected of shooting and killing 26-year-old Sean Collier, an MIT police officer, and severely wounding a transit police officer on Friday.

The unknown, however, is how many lives might have been lost by waiting. The evidence suggests that the brothers, well armed with explosives and weaponry, were planning more attacks.

After a massive manhunt that kept residents of the Boston area hunkered down for much of the day on Friday, authorities lifted the lockdown order. That's when a Watertown resident ventured outside and spotted a trail of blood leading to the suspect hiding in his boat.

In the 12 years since 9/11, those who seek to do harm on American soil have come to know that they face a formidable opponent in the combined forces of America's intelligence and law enforcement communities. But last week they also witnessed the force of a citizenry armed with little more than a cell phone and a desire to contribute. Authorities in the Boston area deserve praise for taking maximum advantage of this ally, allowing its full power to be on display — as both a tool and a warning against future attackers.

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