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Civic Minded or Still Crazy After All These Years?

They say that paranoia is the state of seeing too many connections. That’s what happened in the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” where the character based on the Nobel Laureate John Nash has a wall covered with newspaper articles with circles and lines divining connections among stories where none existed.

Well, I don’t have a wall covered in newsprint, but there are days when I see striking correlations among disparate reports. Consider that in two consecutive days this summer shortly after the failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, there were these two pieces in the Washington Post:

First, an op-ed by Anne Applebaum in which she notes that the U.K. incidents played out as they did in part because of “a supportive public” that is “civic-minded enough to call the police when they suspect something is amiss.” Second, there was a small mention from a news wire story about how “As a stabbing victim lay dying on the floor of a convenience store, five shoppers stepped over the woman, one stopping to take a picture of her with a cell-phone.” This occurred, by the way, not in cold-hearted New York City, but in Wichita, Kansas—the treasured heartland.

Let me hasten to say that, yes, I do remember that our own civic-minded citizen helped police catch the Fort Dix Six when he was asked by the would-be terrorists to develop what he thought were suspicious images. But the Wichita and U.K. stories that were juxtaposed in the news do highlight an important issue that does not get enough attention in discussions of homeland security: Guards, guns, gates, and the other security elements can only get you so far. It is everyday citizen involvement that will ultimately make the difference.

What can we do to enhance that attitude? One option is to expand on the idea of misprision—the legal precept that when someone is aware of a crime and fails to tell police, they can be prosecuted. Personally, I’d be happy to see the people in Wichita prosecuted, but for various reasons, misprision is rarely invoked, and it won’t solve the problem.

 Senator Chris Dodd has a better suggestion. He wants more funding of civic opportunities to encourage everyone to be actively involved in the community. He points to a Maryland program in which high school kids are required to do some type of community work, and he notes how early experience with civic engagement can help young people develop a lifelong habit.

 That’s sound advice, even if it does come from a liberal New England Democrat who has about as much chance of being the next president as I do. There’s a direct line between the level of involvement people feel in their communities and our ability to prevent the next terrorist attack—and you don’t have to be crazy to see that connection.