Citizenship 101: Times Square bomb and Gulf oil spill

The Times Square bomb and the Gulf oil spill show that government can't always protect America by itself. It needs the watchful and caring eyes of citizens.

Two alert street vendors in New York City’s Times Square and thousands of volunteers ready to counter the Gulf oil spill remind America that “government” sometimes needs a citizen assist to do its main job – protecting the nation.

That, at least, holds true with threats as wide-reaching and unpredictable as terrorist attacks or an unprecedented leak from offshore oil drilling.

The Times Square case brings to mind the Christmas bomber, who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet as it approached Detroit last year and who was subdued by passengers. Government officials did not head off the airline bomber, nor did they prevent the perpetrator(s) of the potential Times Square bomb – though police, firefighters, and bomb specialists did respond quickly, clearing the area for safety.

In just about two days a suspect has been arrested, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized US citizen from Pakistan. He is believed to be the owner and driver of the Nissan Pathfinder loaded with explosives and left parked, with the engine running and hazard lights blinking, on 45th Street in Manhattan on Saturday evening.

But it is thanks to two sidewalk vendors, Lance Orton and Duane Jackson, that police were summoned. The men, both Vietnam War veterans, became suspicious of the nearby SUV as it filled with smoke and emitted popping sounds and sparks. A lot of zany things take place in Times Square. It could have been ignored.

But not by these hawk-eyed hawkers. Disabled veterans have special sidewalk privileges to sell their wares and are the “eyes and ears” for police, Mr. Jackson told The New York Times. “‘We know the cops here by first name – we have their cell numbers,” he said.

That’s neighborhood policing at its finest. It shows that law enforcement actually relies on observant citizens for help, whether through neighborhood crime watch groups, the FBI tip website, or even a reality TV show such as “America’s Most Wanted.”

Likewise, natural or man-made disasters can sometimes be too big for federal or local officials to handle alone. In keeping with America’s spirit of service, thousands stand at the ready to help clean oiled wildlife and lay oil-containing booms along the Gulf coast. Oil giant BP, which is taking financial responsibility for the spill, says that about 3,500 people across the Gulf region have been trained to fight the spill with 700 vessels involved. The company is paying fishermen to help contain the oil’s spread. Thousands of volunteers have also registered with wildlife groups, local and national.

As with much in life, however, the interaction between citizens and government requires a balance. Citizens can misuse tip lines for vengeance, racial profiling, or vigilantism. Law enforcement can overstep civil liberties. And lack of coordination and planning between volunteers and government can thwart a massive and needed volunteer campaign.

That shouldn’t discourage individuals from responding when they see the need. Next time you hear an automated message at the airport or in the subway, asking you to keep an eye out for unguarded packages or baggage, look around. When the next disaster strikes, sign up to help. Americans may often feel politically divided and at odds with government, but when it comes to protecting the country, it takes all of us.

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