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Terrorists cannot defeat us

This is why they call it terrorism.

Two off-the-rails brothers with a couple of homemade bombs shook the psyche of America.

This is why they call it terrorism.

As awful as what happened in Boston was, the impact on our collective peace of mind looms nearly as large as the human toll.

This is why they call it terrorism. Root word: terror. Aim: to inject fear, trepidation and unease into our hearts and minds.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did not bring down a building. They did not, like the 9/11 terrorists, inflict mass fatalities. But they succeeded in what they set out to do: explode bombs whose percussive effect was felt psychologically across America.

That is, unfortunately, the nature of the terrorism beast. Anyone who does not care about dying can cause a lot of damage. Even if it is, like in Boston, a crude assault with homemade bombs encased in kitchen pots. Compared with the precision and planning of the 9/11 attack, this was amateur hour. These guys had no exit strategy and were reduced to carjacking – a monumentally dumb move for America’s most wanted fugitives.

Yet they were capable of killing four people, injuring more than 170, bringing Greater Boston to a standstill and punching a hole in America’s collective peace of mind.

Welcome to the 21st century.

The people who want to harm America have no standing army that can invade our shores. They have no conventional weapons that can reach our cities. They merely have the means to strike at innocent people, in primitive and relatively limited ways, with an impact that extends far beyond any body count or injury report.

This is why they call it terrorism.

If 9/11 showed the brute force with which terrorists could strike at an unprepared America, Boston showed the guerrilla-warfare toll that a pair of “lone wolves” can exact on a vigilant nation. Though Boston’s casualty count does not, thankfully, compare with 9/11’s, the psychological ripples reverberated in 300 million hearts and minds. The ability to invoke widespread fear is a power unto itself.

“That’s the [terrorists’] purpose, to get people to look over their shoulders,” retired FBI special agent Pete Ahearn told me. “To be afraid to get on the subway or go to something like the Boston Marathon.”

That is, ultimately, how the terrorists “win.” They place the demon of anxiety on our shoulders. They prompt us to change the way we live. They force fear into our hearts. And that, ultimately, is how and why I think the Tsarnaevs – and anyone like them – will lose. It will not happen. Not here. Not in America. We are too big. We are too strong. We are too resolute.

Ahearn, former head of the Buffalo FBI office, was instrumental in the Lackawanna Six investigation. He is now a law enforcement consultant in Washington, D.C.

“In Israel, people walk out of the house and wonder, ‘Am I coming home tonight?’ ” he said. “We are fortunate that we are not at that level in this country.”

Given the variety of nuts, zealots and absolutists out there – and the ease by which firearms are acquired and Boston-style bombs can be built – it is astounding to me that such attacks do not happen more often. On any given day across America, there are thousands of “windows of opportunity” for terrorists. Any crowded ballgame, parade, race, rally or festival is a potential “target” in a terrorist’s mind. Yet there have been countless such public events since 9/11 in our country that came and went without incident.

Until now.

“This is the worst nightmare of the FBI, the ‘lone wolf,’ ” said Ahearn. “There was [likely] no directive from on high, no [traceable] cellphone call telling these guys, ‘Do the Boston Marathon.’ It was just an [American-based] terrorist determined to do whatever he can do.”

I think there is a somewhat reassuring, broader-perspective view: We have, post-9/11, battened down our hatches, guarded our flanks, protected our borders, increased our vigilance, cut off avenues of assault and otherwise shielded ourselves as capably and admirably as I think is possible in a free society.

From citizen-wielded cellphone cameras to airport checkpoints, from security cameras that capture much of our urban landscape to our heightened awareness of threats, from watchful local police to anti-terrorist task forces, America has tightened up and hunkered down.

Though a gathering like the Boston Marathon is all but indefensible, technology aided in nailing the terrorists. Surveillance cameras captured images of the Tsarnaev brothers. They were quickly identified after the FBI released the pictures.

Despite widespread fear in the months after 9/11, no terrorist has poisoned a water supply, released biochemical agents into the air or carried out an attack with mass fatalities on U.S. soil. Some of the attempts at mayhem bordered on pathetic. The attempted Times Square bombing three years ago, by an al-Qaida disciple, was thwarted when the crude device left in a vehicle started belching telltale smoke.

“If they could do something more spectacular, they would,” noted Ahearn. “I think we have done a great job of preventing an attack.”

I don’t know if what happened in Boston changes that. I don’t know if the Tsarnaevs’ “success” – killings, casualties, a city paralyzed – will embolden other homegrown terrorists. Maybe it will. Maybe others will “succeed.” But they will not, ultimately, win. America is too big, too strong, too resolute. Two crazies armed with kitchen-pot bombs – or others who might follow – will not take us down.

The Tsarnaev brothers ended four peoples’ lives, badly injured dozens of others and for five days had America holding its collective breath. But they will not, and cannot, change the way we live.