MY SIDE OF THE STREET: Saints and sinners aren’t easily distinguished by looks

One night last week I was on my way to work when I passed what looked like a service truck parked near the entrance to my neighborhood. I didn’t see a logo or company name, which made me slightly suspicious, but there was a traffic cone at the corner and the guys walking around it were wearing MYSIDEOFSTREETsafety vests and hard hats. Citizens have been asked to watch for possible suspects in the cable-cutting vandalism case; should I call it in?

Most of us are concerned about being considered nuts, or wasting police time. But what really caused me to decide against calling was the location. My neighborhood is at the extreme end of the utilities in our part of McKinleyville – cutting the line there would have impacted perhaps 50 customers at most.

The previous cuts were made in places that took out service to many thousands of customers. So I didn’t call, the men went about their business and I went to work. The non-case was closed before it was opened.

The Boston Marathon bombings ignited another round of finger-pointing, largely along party lines. People who defended the George W. Bush administration for not preventing the 9/11 terrorist attacks are busy criticizing the Obama administration for not preventing the Boston bombs. They seem to miss the point of terrorism, which is to constantly morph from one means to another, precisely to make it impossible to know how and where the terrorists will strike next.

Now that we know the bombs in downtown Boston were constructed using pressure cookers, some people who should know better will want to ban the sale of pressure cookers. That would be silly. I’d bet a nickel a pressure cooker will never again be used to construct a terrorist bomb in the United States.

There was an important role for the public to play once law enforcement had scoured the surveillance recordings and could provide images of persons of interest. Crowd sourcing the hunt to identify the suspects was a quick and effective way to find them, but that doesn’t mean that the public and anti-terror officials should have been able to predict that those two suspects were planning to bomb the event. The number of people who might do that is huge, while the number who do it is thankfully tiny – just as the number of legitimate utility service workers who are out and about after dark is large in comparison to the cable vandals.

Profiling has taken on a bad name because it can be used to mistreat people based solely on combinations such as race, gender and age, but that is not a necessary element of the process. Solid science shows that elderly females rarely commit any crimes and almost never violent ones, so wasting time chasing after them in the Boston bombing case would have been silly. Nor is it sensible to automatically target immigrants, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding and grateful to be here, despite the problems they encounter.

Most people go out of their way to give the benefit of doubt to those who haven’t acted in a way which suggests they have bad intentions. Others are more ready to suspect anyone – on no evidence at all – they perceive as different in national origin, religion or lifestyle. That rigidity feeds the resentment of a small, but potentially dangerous group of potential terrorists.

Whether it was a good idea or not, the involvement of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided oceans of ill-feeling that can easily be transformed into the kind of hatred that leads to terrorism. At the same time, most of the immigrants to the US from that part of the world are here precisely because they want to escape that kind of reactionary thinking. There is no easy way to identify which ones are which, and anybody who says there is is whistling in the dark.

Those folks want to feel safe, and they erroneously believe that if they could reduce the population of the country to people just like themselves, that would do the trick. Then they are shocked when someone they went to school with kills his drug dealer or the deacon of their church steals money to cover gambling debts. How many times do the neighbors of a mass murderer tell reporters “he always seemed like a nice boy”?

Life would be a lot simpler if we could instantly identify those with evil on their mind, but it isn’t possible. The young man with the choir-boy good looks may be selling drugs at the high school while the scruffy kid is helping to feed the hungry. Some immigrants have stronger family ties than some native born residents.

You just don’t know. Feeding suspicions is another terrorist tactic, diverting attention from real threats and setting us against each other. And it fuels the 24-hour news cycle, even when there is no new news to report.

(Elizabeth Alves recommends turning off the television news channels as soon as they start to repeat, which is usually in about 15 minutes. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to