In Boston and Cleveland tragedies, a case for more neighborliness

The twin tragedies of the Boston bombings and Cleveland kidnappings reveal a need for those close to would-be perpetrators to both care more and be more alert. Balancing the two isn't always easy.

Scott Shaw/Cleveland Plain Dealer/AP Photo
Neighbor Charles Ramsey speaks to media near the home where three missing women were rescued in Cleveland May 6. Cheering crowds gathered on the street where police said Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight were found. Ramsey helped one of them escape.

Two big news events within a month – the Boston Marathon bombings and the Cleveland kidnappings – have led to much hand-wringing over whether anyone who knew the perpetrators might have been able to stop these horrific acts.

Were the neighbors or associates of the suspects as caring or alert as they might have been to spot troubling behavior – and to do something about it?

In hindsight, it would be easy to say “no.” In both cases, there were possible trigger points in which someone might have played the role of “brother’s keeper.”

The Muslim mosque in Cambridge, Mass., could have been more diligent in how it dealt with bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev as he became more radical and belligerent, condemning the United States. The mosque did throw him out. But it didn’t contact police. And its members didn’t engage him in such a way as to help him with his conflicted feelings of  identity and his family difficulties.

And even though a few people in the Cleveland neighborhood told police of odd behavior of the three Castro brothers held in connection with kidnapping the three women, many neighbors wonder if they should have known more – or done more. Should they have tried to befriend the brothers, for example, or kept a closer eye on activities in the house?

Such speculation strikes at the heart of how successfully an individual in any group – a neighborhood, a religious setting, or an office – forms a trusting relationship with others out of genuine goodwill yet also remains watchful for attitudes or behavior outside a particular norm. The line between trust and spying is easy to cross. Just ask any parent with a teenager.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government agencies have encouraged Muslim communities to be more alert to members who “self-radicalize.” New York City has the most sophisticated program of its kind, working with local Muslims to spot home-grown terrorists.

Nearly a third of would-be attacks by Muslims have been thwarted by information from American Muslims, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. One terrorism cell was disrupted in Lackawanna, N.Y., for example, when Yemeni-Americans tipped off the FBI.

In Britain after the 2005 bombing of the London subway, a “Prevent” program was set up to develop trust between officials and Muslim leaders to help work with young men tending toward militant behavior.

Law enforcement officials in general rely on citizens to care about their communities and to inform them of potential trouble. When the FBI released images of the Tsarnaev brothers in hopes that someone would identity them, FBI agent Richard DesLauriers said, “For more than 100 years, the FBI has relied on the public to be its eyes and ears.”

The caring is critical. But there’s also a danger in citizen vigilance. It can lead to racial, ethnic, or religious profiling. This is now an issue in the Florida court case of George Zimmerman, charged with killing Trayvon Martin, a young black man, while patrolling his neighborhood with a gun to keep it safe.

The biblical command to “love one’s neighbor” is based on a need to build societies that reflect the best qualities in human beings. Big tragedies serve as reminders of how much more we can all do – without crossing the boundaries of being too nosy.

After one of the Cleveland women, Gina DeJesus, was kidnapped in 2004, the estranged son of suspect Ariel Castro happened to interview her mother for a local newspaper. He was a journalism student at the time. He quoted her as saying that people had begun to look out for each other’s children.

“It’s a shame that a tragedy had to happen for me to really know my neighbors,” the article quoted the mother as saying. “Bless their hearts, they’ve been great.”

And indeed, it was neighbor Charles Ramsey who heard Amanda Berry’s pleas for help from the Castro house that led to the escape of the three women. He knew when not to look the other way.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial stated that all three Castro brothers had been charged. Only one has been charged so far.]

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