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Zero Tolerance after Boston Marathon

Teenagers, social media, and terrorism: a threat level hard to assess

Authorities are leaning more toward zero tolerance of teenagers who fling around online threats about acts of violence or terrorism. As a result, what might have once merited a slap on the wrist may today result in criminal charges.

Christian Science MonitorBy Mark Guarino | Christian Science Monitor – 10 hrs ago

  • The case of teenager Cameron Dambrosio might serve as an object lesson to young people everywhere about minding what you say online unless you are prepared to be arrested for terrorism.

The Methuen, Mass., high school student was arrested last week after posting online videos that show him rapping an original song that police say contained “disturbing verbiage” and reportedly mentioned the White House and the Boston Marathon bombing. He is charged with communicating terrorist threats, a state felony, and faces a potential 20 years in prison. Bail is set at $1 million.

Whether the arrest proves to be a victory in America‘s fight against domestic terrorism or whether Cameron made an unfortunate artistic choice in the aftermath of the Boston bombing will become clear as the wheels of justice advance. What is apparent now, however, is that law enforcement agencies are tightening their focus on the social media behavior of US teenagers – not just because young people often fit the profile of those who are vulnerable to radicalization, but also because the public appears to be more accepting of monitoring and surveillance aimed at preventing attacks, even at the risk of government overreach.

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“When I was young, calling a bomb threat to your high school because you didn’t want to go to school that day was treated with a slap on the wrist. Try that nowadays and you’re going to prison, no question about it. They are taking it more seriously now,” says Rob D’Ovidio, a criminal justice professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who specializes in high-tech crime.

Teenagers are generally blissfully unaware that law enforcement agencies are creating cyber units to track and investigate developing ways that criminals, or would-be criminals, research, socialize, and plot nefarious actions, from child molestation to domestic terrorism. The Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, fit this profile: Each maintained a YouTubepage and Twitter feed that promoted the teachings of a radical Muslim cleric. alongside innocuous postings about music and sports. For law enforcement officials, filtering what does and does not constitute a threat is a delicate balancing act that, since the April 15 bombing, may be tilting to the side of additional caution over individuals’ free speech.

“The danger of this in light of the tragedy in Boston is that law enforcement is being so risk-averse they are in danger of crossing that line and going after what courts would ultimately deem as free speech,” Mr. D’Ovidio says.

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Three people were killed and at least 260 injured in the two bomb blasts near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15. Since then, questions have been raised about how authorities missed signals, especially after alerts from Russian intelligence, that one of the bombing suspects had become radicalized. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed after a gunfight with police, had been under surveillance byRussia for six months when he traveled there in 2011 and 2012, besides his activity on social media.

“The bottom line is that the public wants to know, after the fact, why [an attack] was not stopped.… Most Americans are prepared to maintain a sophisticated watch on this without [government] overreach, but most Americans also feel if these things can be stopped before they begin, they want to see that happen,” says Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security.

Some authorities say that zooming in on unusual behavior online fits squarely with how police have conducted random searches on the street.

“The greatest mystery in life is the human mind. We don’t know what other people do until it becomes known. Our job is to figure it out, but we need indicators to know something’s not right,” says Sgt. Ed Mullins of the New York Police Department, who is also president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, the city’s second-largest police union.

Using a zero tolerance approach to track domestic terrorists online is the only reasonable way to analyze online threats these days, especially after the Boston Marathon bombing and news that the suspects had subsequently planned to target Times Square in Manhattan, Mullins says. The way law enforcement agencies approach online activity that appears sinister is this: “If you’re not a terrorist, if you’re not a threat, prove it,” he says.

“This is the price you pay to live in free society right now. It’s just the way it is,” Mullins adds.

That method can result in arrests of teenagers whose online activity may be more aptly characterized as stupid pranks.

In February, Jessica Winslow and Ti’jeanae Harris, two high school girls in Rapids Parish, La., were arrested and charged with 10 counts of terrorism each after they allegedly e-mailed threats to students and faculty “to see if they could get away with it,” detectives told a local television news station. “We take every threat in our schools as a credible threat, and I am happy to say we have made these arrests,” Sheriff William Earl Hilton told reporters.

In January, Alex David Rosario, a high school student in Armada Village, Mich., was charged with domestic terrorism after he allegedly threatened to shoot fellow employees at the Subway shop where he worked. He told police it was a joke. “We feel threatening to kill somebody is not a joke. It doesn’t appear the prosecutor takes it as a joke either and the judge certainly doesn’t,” said Armada Police Chief Howard Smith.

Then there is the case of Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, a Chicago-area teenager arrested last year after trying to join, over the Internet, a Syrian militant group linked to Al Qaeda. Last week, a federal judge allowed Mr. Tounisi home confinement while awaiting trial.

Militant and hate groups are known to use the Internet to lure teenagers “to gain their sympathy” through video games, music, or rhetoric that plays to themes of alienation, D’Ovidio says. Connecting with terrorists would have been impossible in the past, but today, as is alleged in the Tounisi case, anyone with a grudge or curiosity, or both, and an Internet connection can open that dialogue. Foolishly, the teens perceive that they are operating anonymously and within a safe environment, D’Ovidio says.

“We know these groups are catering and looking for these individuals,” he says. “They create the right environment for experimentation for kids who may have a proclivity of being disgruntled toward the US government.”

Easy access to online media, plus the urge to rebel, is a combustible mix that should make parents vigilant, cautions Stephen Balkam, chief executive officer of the Family Online Safety Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington that wants teenagers to be better informed about the outcomes of what they post, tweet, or upload online.

“Every generation of teenagers has figured out a way of rebelling against their parents, or giving it back to ‘the man.’ What I think is unprecedented is the very ‘man’ and the system they want to rebel against can track them and find their digital footprints online,” Mr. Balkam says. “In a sense, it’s good that we can catch kids who are getting radicalized sooner than later, but by the same token, it’s a challenge for kids to grow and develop, which is their job as a teenager, if they are being scrutinized too much.”

Young Movers, With a Passion for Change


I intended to write this column next October, but why wait? As President Obama observed last week, we’ve been through a tough time. And as the Boston Marathon bombing continues to be headline news — and gut-wrenching images continue to circulate — we need to keep in mind what behavioral scientists call the “availability heuristic” — our tendency to mistakenly estimate the probability of events based on how readily examples come to mind. A story that leaves a painful and vivid impression like this one can distort our sense of reality for a long time.

Which is why I’m reporting today on the polar opposite of terrorism: the inaugural Peace First Prize — a new award, introduced by a Boston-based organization, to recognize young people the group identifies as “peacemakers”: people in the United States from the ages of 8 to 22 who engage in courageous, compassionate and collaborative actions to make their communities stronger, safer and better over the long term.

The announcement of the winners, who will each be awarded $50,000, won’t happen until the fall. But the application round has recently closed and I had a chance to speak with some of the entrants — there were 658 from 47 states and the District of Columbia —  and they offer a glimpse into a hidden side of reality, one that may help us to anticipate the future. While the peacemakers are not typically news headliners, there are a lot more of them than there are terrorists.

These young peacemakers challenge the standard notions many adults have about people their age. “We tend to look at young people in one of two ways: they’re either victims or potential victims we need to protect, or they’re perpetrators we need to punish. That’s our narrative. That’s our public policy,” said Eric Dawson, Peace First’s founder. “The idea behind the Peace First Prize is to offer a different narrative. That young people are peacemakers — powerful change makers.”

Consider Emily-Anne Rigal, from Virginia, who, at 16, turned her talents for videography and social media into a lively online platform, WeStopHate, that is attacking bullying at its roots, providing a space where hundreds of thousands of teenagers exchange views and insights about self-image.

Or check out the work of 11-year-old Gerry Orz, from Los Angeles, whose organization, Kids Resource, teaches young people how to prevent or respond to bullying. Gerry and his friends have made two short films that dramatize bullying: Day of Silence and Born to Bully; they’ve put together a public service announcement, and they are busy at work on other films. “I have gay parents and I am Jewish so people had two things to bully me about,” Gerry said. “I didn’t want to see any other child go through this.”

Many of these young people are drawing upon their own painful experiences. Amit Dodani, 15, from California, struggled with a speech impediment for many years. So he established My Name, My Story, offering a space for young people to exchange stories and start clubs that aim to build empathy.

Christopher Carswell, 14, from Georgia, has endured serious health problems and seizures for much of his life. After receiving life-changing assistance from a service dog, he decided to create1Boy4Change, an organization that provides service dogs and iPads to disabled children and veterans. Caitlin Chapski, 18, from New Jersey, was distressed to see friends and family members struggling with depression. For her Girl Scout Gold Award project, she brought youngsters together to express themselves through art in public places.

Fifteen-year-old Sarah Cronk, from Iowa, was a high school cheerleader. Her older brother, Charlie, was on the autism spectrum. After an older student encouraged Charlie to join the swim team, Sarah saw that it “turned his life around.” She wondered if she could open up cheerleading to students with disabilities?

When she approached school administrators, they were “incredibly skeptical,” she recalled. But she managed to persuade them to let her try it out. She found students who were excited by the idea; they practiced for a month and a half, and then, one Friday night, under the bright lights in front of thousands, they walked onto the football field arm in arm. “The crowd rose to their feet and started chanting in unison,” Sarah recalled. “I’ve never seen bigger smiles.”

Since then the Sparkle Effect has spread to 90 schools and Sarah has won a prestigious Do Something Award. Students with a wide range of physical and developmental disabilities, from different age groups, are involved. “Our youngest participant was in second grade,” said Sarah. “She’s never going to know what it feels like to be excluded.”

Young peacemakers are deepening our appreciation of the environment. At age 9, Avalon Theisen founded Conserve It Forward, and for the past three years she has been teaching others about habitat loss and conservation through class presentations, interactive booths at parks, zoos and community gatherings, and other outreach efforts. (Avalon is particularly compelling when she talks about frogs, and the importance of saving them.)

A sense of economic justice also runs deep. When Nicholas Lowinger, from Rhode Island, was 5 years old, his mother took him to a homeless shelter. He was shocked to see kids who didn’t have sneakers. When he was 12, he started the Gotta Have Sole Foundation to provide new shoes to children in shelters. “A lot of the kids are being ridiculed or bullied because they have used shoes or holes in their shoes,” he said. To date, Nicholas’s foundation has assisted 8,000 kids. “A lot of people in the United States think they have to go to a third world country to find poverty,” he added.

Yasmine Arrington, 20, isn’t one of them. A sophomore at Elon University, in North Carolina, Yasmine never got to know her father because he was in and out of prison throughout her childhood. When she was in high school, she took part in a program called LearnServe International, which encouraged her to address a social problem in her community. She created ScholarCHIPS, a scholarship program for children with incarcerated parents. “I understand the financial and emotional struggles that come with having a parent in prison and being stigmatized,” she said. ScholarCHIPS is now supporting its first four students. Yasmine hopes to support hundreds more over the next five years. “The average age of a child of an incarcerated adult is 8 years old,” she said. “There are  a lot of children growing up feeling like they’re not good enough for college. We need to give them opportunities.”

Karim Abouelnaga, 21, a senior at Cornell University, agrees. Karim is the son of Egyptian immigrants and next month he will be the first person in his family to graduate from college. He attributes his success to a mentoring program. That’s why he started Practice Makes Perfect, a summer program that pairs academically struggling middle school students with high-achieving high school students from the same low income neighborhoods. Last summer, Practice Makes Perfect served 100 students in high poverty areas of New York, demonstrating impressive results. Karim’s goal is to raise $100,000 to serve 500 students this summer. “I think this is an opportunity to replace summer school for middle school nationwide,” he says.

Some of the children focus in on needs that adults overlook. Jessica Carscadden, 10, from California, was adopted at the age of 5 from an orphanage in China. She had been abandoned by her birth parents because she was born with a cleft lip and palate. Two years ago, Jessica was thinking about how frightening it is for children when they are involved in fires or car accidents and she got the idea to donate her stuffed animals to the local fire department. “It just kind of came to me,” she said. “I got really sad for those kids and I thought a cuddly bear could help them.”

More From Fixes

Read previous contributions to this series.

Since then the We Care Bears Project has collected hundreds of bags of bears, which now sit in every emergency response vehicle in San Diego, as well as in hundreds of others across Southern California and Nevada, plus the Ronald McDonald Houses of San Diego and Las Vegas. For this October, Jessica is organizing a drive at her school, hoping to collect 500 more bags of bears. “They have to be clean,” she insisted. Her dream is to take the project to New York City, where she has heard about the bravery of the firefighters.

The peacemakers I spoke to had plenty to say about what they’d learned. They spoke of skills they’d acquired: how to work in a team, how to spread an idea, how to fund-raise, how to talk with the media, how to fill out legal forms, how to present themselves so people will take them seriously.

Given this extraordinary education, it makes you wonder if our schools should focus far more on peacemaking than test taking.

“We don’t call our young people to big things,” says Eric Dawson, whose organization has been training educators to teach peacemaking skills for two decades. “We spend our time telling themnot to use drugs, not to smoke, not to be a bully. All good messages, but at the end of the day what are we advising young people to do?”

Dawson suggests three things adults can do:

1. Ask young people questions of engagement. What do you think about that? What would you do? How do you think we could make this better?

2. Take young people’s ideas seriously.

3. Give young people concrete opportunities to act on their ideas.

“The idea is to invite them to try on this role,” he adds. “And to show that peacemaking isn’t holding hands and singing songs, nor is it the huge examples of Dr. King and Gandhi and Mother Teresa. It’s having courage and compassion, taking risks, showing perseverance, crossing lines of difference, mobilizing and working with others.”

I’ll follow up in October, when the winners are announced. And if you know of any young peacemakers in your community, please write in and share their stories.

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Bostonians’ Support Victims in Wake of Bombings / Lateef Mungin CNN

(CNN) — They’re offering their spare rooms, their couches, their food, their cars — even their own beds.

A huge wave of strangers is greeting the many visitors stranded by the Boston Marathon bombings with a massive outpouring of support.

“We figure this is the least we can do,” said Heather Carey, who offered a couch at the home near Boston University she shares with roommates. “I saw a website with many others offering their spaces like we did. It is awesome to see so many people helping.”

The twin blasts Monday that left three dead and more than 140 wounded also left countless people without shelter. Investigators turned the heart of Boston into a crime scene, evacuating several hotels. This left dozens of visitors, some of them international runners unfamiliar with the area, stranded.

Photos: Deadly attack at Boston MarathonPhotos: Deadly attack at Boston Marathon


Security intensifies across the U.S.


Officials focus on Boston-area apartment


Boston bombings heighten safety concerns

By Monday evening, pleas were posted on several websites.

“Me and my friends lost our phone after the explosion,” a woman posted on Reddit. “We are visiting from Korea so our English be not very good. My friend is in the hospital now and they say we can not stay over night in hospital.”

Another woman posted: “I have no where to go.”

Quickly, the online cries for help were answered. Websites were flooded with Bostonians offering aid. Even though it was unclear how many people were helped, by early Tuesday morning a Facebook page set up for victims listed more than 100 people offering rooms and rides.

Sandeep Karnik pledged his one-bedroom condo near Fenway Park, saying someone could sleep in his bed.

“I can sleep on the couch,” said Karnik, 37. “This is unfathomable, terrible. If there is somebody in need, I can take them in.”

Karnik said he ran the marathon in 2009 for charity despite a knee injury and being slightly out of shape. He said he would have never finished the race without the support of strangers cheering him on and giving him water.

“It is my turn to give back,” he said.

Steve Trotto offered two guest rooms in his home about 45 minutes away from downtown. He said he was proud of the response from people in the New England area.

And it’s not only people in the area who were moved to action.

David Semick of Northern California was also offering support early Tuesday morning.

“Clearly I’m way out of the Boston area,” Semick said. “But maybe there is a relative that lives over here that needs something. I am here to help. I am 3,000 miles away, and I was so touched by this. So many of us want to help anyway we can.”