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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.

RECOMMENDED: Quiz: How much do you know about terrorism?

“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.”

How to build a second American century / Richard Haass Wall Street Journal

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.” Follow him on Twitter:@RichardHaass



It was in 1941 that Henry Luce exhorted his countrymen to eschew isolationism, enter the war and make the 20th century the first great American century. Fulfilling his vision, the United States managed a historic trifecta, prevailing in two world wars and the subsequent Cold War.

If Luce were alive today, he would no doubt be tempted to urge his fellow citizens to make the 21st century the second great American century. This one, however, would focus not on winning ideological struggles and thwarting totalitarian bids for dominance, but on creating meaningful rules and international arrangements to contend with the defining challenges of the era: climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, infectious and non-communicable diseases, trade and investment protectionism, terrorism and providing for the 9 billion people who will soon inhabit this planet.

This notion of a second American century may seem bizarre, given the United States’ obvious domestic troubles — from poor schools and crumbling infrastructure to mounting debt and low economic growth — and its external challenges, including terrorism, a rising China, an antagonistic North Korea that has nuclear weapons and an equally hostile Iran that appears to want them.

Nevertheless, we could already be in the second decade of another American century. Here are six reasons:

To start, the United States is and will remain for some time first among unequals. This country boasts the world’s largest economy; its annual GDP of almost $16 trillion is nearly one-fourth of global output. Compare this figure with $7 trillion for China and $6 trillion for Japan. Per capita GDP in the United States is close to $50,000, somewhere between six and nine times that of China.

The United States also has the world’s most capable armed forces. No other country comes close to competing with it on the modern battlefield. Even with the sequester, core U.S. defense spending of some $500 billion is greater than that of the next 10 countries combined. The American qualitative military edge will be around for a long, long time.

Second, there is no peer competitor on the horizon. Yes, China has been growing fast, and the day will come when its GDP equals or passes that of the United States. But that day will arrive later than many forecast, as Chinese growth is slowing. In addition, China’s ability to translate its increasing wealth into power and influence is constrained by a deteriorating natural environment, an enormous and aging population, burgeoning social needs, and a political system far less dynamic than the economy and society it seeks to control.

Nor is any other major power in a position to challenge the United States. Despite a collective economy slightly larger than that of the United States and a population surpassing 500 million, the European Union punches far below its weight in the world as a result of its parochialism, pronounced anti-military culture, and unresolved tensions between nationalism and the commitment to building a collective union. Europe also faces prolonged low economic growth.

Japan, meanwhile, is saddled with a large debt — approximately 200 percent of GDP — whilerestrictive immigration policies deny the country an opportunity not just to increase its population and lower its average age, but to obtain new ideas and talent. The nation is also limited by political parties that are more like personal fiefdoms and the burden of a history that makes most of its neighbors wary of any Japanese reemergence as a political and military power.

Russia will also continue to be held back by its politics. It is hobbled by corruption and is more an oligarchy than a democracy, though the possibility exists for large-scale popular protests, a “Moscow Spring” that would challenge the legitimacy and durability of the regime. Russia also has a mostly one-dimensional economy, more influenced by government than markets, that depends on oil, gas and minerals.


In short, the alleged other great powers are not all that great. None has the means to overthrow the existing order and, at least as important, none is committed to doing so. Each is largely preoccupied with its own economic, social and political problems. This is the third reason the century could turn out well for Americans.

The final reason to be upbeat about the prospects for a new American century is the potential to return to high rates of economic growth. The country’s post-World War ll average is slightly above 3 percent, impressive for an advanced economy and well above the current pace. The United States can get back to this level or even surpass it because of the world-class quality of much American higher education, the availability of capital for business start-ups, a legal system that encourages risk and does not unduly penalize failure, and a culture of innovation. 

There is nothing inevitable, however, about American sway over this young center. The advantages this country enjoys are neither permanent nor sufficient to ensure continued primacy. 

So, what needs doing? A partial list includes fixing broken public schools, repairing or replacing aged infrastructure, modernizing immigration policy, reforming health care, negotiating new trade accords, lowering corporate taxes, reining in spending on entitlements, and reducing debt as a share of GDP. Abroad, it includes resisting wars of choice where the interests at stake are less than vital and where there are alternatives to the use of force. This would also mean accepting that we cannot remake other societies in our image.

What stands in the way of the next American century is American politics. To paraphrase Walter Kelly’s Pogo, we have met the problem, and we are it. Special interests often crowd out the general national interest. Partisanship can be healthy, but not when it leads to an inability to govern and to make difficult choices.

Either we resolve our political dysfunction, rethink our foreign policy and restore the foundations of American power — and in the process provide another century of American leadership — or we fail. The alternative to a U.S.-led 21st century is not an era dominated by China or anyone else, but rather a chaotic time in which regional and global problems overwhelm the world’s collective will and ability to meet them.

Americans would not be safe or prosperous in such a world. One Dark Ages was one too many; the last thing we need is another.

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Obama’s Valentine

You didn’t have to look past the triumvirate up on the podium last night to see that the overall theme Washington is trying to project right now is softer and more unified. The power rep tie has given way to soft violets, blues and pinks. Gone are the hard edges and traditional bright reds and blues that used to dominate in Congress.