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Tim Blagg

Tim Blagg: Playing 'what if ...'

J ust as I expected, the finger-pointing and Monday morning quarterbacking has dominated the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings ever since the second suspect was arrested.

Talking heads on every network have opined about what might have been done, what should have been done, what THEY would have done to prevent the attack, if they’d been in charge.

Hindsight is 20-20, as the saying goes.

We’ve always seen this kind of thing — Could Roosevelt have prevented Pearl Harbor? is a good example — and you can make the case that it’s part and parcel of a democracy.

After all, Athenians ostracized their savior Themistocles after he made it possible for them to defeat the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis. After they found out he’d duped them into funding the fleet that made the victory possible, they formally voted to expel him from the city for life.

Sure, he was a hero, but they decided they didn’t like the way he did things and kicked him out.

Not much gratitude there.

But in today’s world, the fault-finding is even more quick and dirty. After all, we live in a 24/7 news world, and all that space has to be filled.

So we get instant heroes and instant goats, and sometimes they’re interchangeable.

Look at David Petreaus. He’s probably the best general this country has seen since George Patton, and all it took for him to be summarily removed from the CIA — one of the most important and crucial positions in the country — was an extra-marital affair. Dwight Eisenhower had one while he was running the entire Allied effort in Europe and nobody blinked.

Does making a human mistake mean nothing you do can be trusted? No, it was the prospect of endless hours of criticism that prompted President Obama to spinelessly send him packing.

When something bad like the bombings happen, scores of “analysts” immediately start looking for signs that officials could — or should — have picked up on before it occurred.

In the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, there were some indications, and in a perfect world our intelligence services would have found them and acted.

But those exact clues — the use of the word “jihad” in a phone conversation, for example — were in existence for tens of thousands of others.

What if that recording had triggered a more serious response? Could the brothers have been headed off?

What if that Army radar operator on a remote outpost in Hawaii had taken the large blip on his screen more seriously and a warning issued to the anchored fleet at Pearl Harbor? Could the battleships have been fully manned and steaming out of the harbor when the Japanese attack force arrived?

What if the CIA and the FBI had realized that too many foreign nationals were suddenly interested in taking flying lessons. Could the World Trade Center have been saved?

What if, back in 1940, the coded mission orders for Luftwaffe bomber squadrons had been decrypted and the significance of their references to several cities been unscrambled? Could triple-A batteries have been moved and night fighter squadrons scrambled and spared Coventry its destruction?

What if, what if...

As Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in her study “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision,” “It is much easier after the event to sort the relevant signals from the irrelevant signals. After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has now occurred. But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings. It comes to the observer embedded in an atmosphere of ‘noise’, i.e. in all sorts of information that is useless and irrelevant for predicting the disaster.”

In today’s society, that “noise” is much louder and even with modern analytical tools, harder to sort through. The sheer volume of phone calls, texts, emails, tweets and other communications can baffle intelligence experts trying to predict terrorist actions.

Looking back, of course, it’s much easier.

But is it useful?

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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