Will our leaders blow it after 4/15 like they did after 9/11?

If an alien picked last week to visit Planet Earth – and especially the United States of America – for the very first time, he or she surely would have gotten a speedy education in all the basics of what it means to be a human being in 2013. Starting at 2:50 p.m. on that Monday afternoon when two explosions ripped through the finish line of the Boston Marathon -- killing three people including an eight-year-old child, and wounding more than 170 others -- and culminating with the capture of the second young terrorist on Friday night, here’s what our otherworldly visitor would have seen:

The presence – and indeed the banality – of the evil that walks among us; the remarkable human quality of rushing into unknown dangers to help complete strangers, our never-ending desire for new information and the folly that creates, our flights into more than occasional paranoia and tribalism, the routine everyday bravery of people who chose a life of public service, and finally, the immense pride that people feel when they are part of a community, the caring about others that will never eliminate hate but which can overwhelm it.

Some of the celebration that took place Friday night with the confirmation that 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been captured alive by the FBI and local law enforcement – partying in the streets and what not – seemed a tad over the top, with some families still mourning and others coping with the loss of a limb or with brain damage. But the applause and American flag waving in the streets of Watertown, Mass., for the officers who’d risked their lives to capture Dzhokhar sarnaev was more than just appropriate – it was one of the more moving moments of televised news that I have ever witnessed -- a catharsis of humanity, of overcoming.

Indeed, it’s a small comfort that from what was an unspeakable tragedy, the indelible images that emerged from the events of April 15-20 in Massachusetts were largely snapshots of heroism, of police officers surrounding a fallen 78-year-old runner, or the anti-war activist Carlos Arredondo racing into the mayhem to save lives, including the man in the wheelchair who lived to help police identify the two suspects.

How ironic: Two seriously misguided young men threw pressure cookers larded with evil into the laboratory of daily American life, and the result they gave us in the end was a tragedy-tinged reminder that the rank-and-file U.S. citizen is someone who – despite our foibles and prejudices – is inclined to love his neighbor. He or she is someone who has learned from a dozen years of rare bloodshed but persistent threats that the best way to win “a war” against terrorism is to be free, to assemble openly in public, to vow to run in the Boston Marathon next year, to do anything but cower in fear.

The week of 4/15 was also a week to think back on 9/11/01. The difference in scope and scale between what happened a dozen years ago in New York, D.C., and elsewhere is vast – nearly 3,000 dead from an elaborate al-Qaeda plot, versus four innocent victims last week by these two Chechens raised in Cambridge. But the intent was very much the same – to frighten people, to scare them from going to work in Manhattan or scare them from enjoying a large sporting event like the Boston Marathon. The heroism we celebrated then – of first responders at the World Trade Center or passengers on Fight 93 -- and the ensuing patriotic fervor are the same things that we celebrate today.

But something happened in America after 9/11, and it’s something we need to be discussing, openly and honestly -- right now. Back then, the very human reactions of everyday citizens – deep patriotism, deep fear – were exploited by one of the most cynical groups of leaders this nation has ever had. From the deserts of Iraq to the secret CIA prisons of Poland to the shores of Guantanamo Bay, the administration of George W. Bush adopted policies – far too many of them continued by President Barack Obama with little or no change – that were wrong-headed at best, and exploitative and immoral at their worst. As a nation, we had still not come to terms with that dark legacy of 9/11 when the first tweets and news bulletins came out of Boston last week.

Ironically, two news stories that should have been on the front page reminding Americans of the unresolved legacy of 9/11 were all but lost (understandably) in the rubble of Boston. The first was a remarkable op-ed by a man named Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel who has been imprisoned without a trial at Guantanamo for more than a decade without a trial. He is one of dozens of Guantanamo prisoners now involved in a hunger strike, and in his piece he describes how he is painfully force-fed by his American guards. He says he’s innocent, although U.S. officials – who oddly say not a word in their defense now – once said he was connected to Osama bin Laden when he crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan in 2002. The only fair and legal way to prove who is right is in a courtroom. The fact that Moqbel has not seen one yet is unconscionable.

Getting even less attention was the release last week of a report by a bipartisan group that took it upon itself to study what the Obama administration, the Justice Department and Congress hope will simply go away – the use of torture that was condoned at the highest level of U.S. government after the 9/11 attacks. The group (which included ex-congressman and current NRA leader Asa Hutchinson, no flaming peace activist) found it was “indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and called on the Obama administration to admit our mistakes, something that was unlikely even before Monday’s attack.

I wish the national conversation last week had included these two stories. I can’t begin to stress how important it is that America learns from the mistakes that leaders made after 9/11 so that they are not repeated, not after 4/15, not ever. The police, the firefighters, the citizens who volunteered rescues and first-aid and who gave blood, the runners who vowed to be back on the course next April – they have done the heavy lifting of keeping America free. We can’t let Washington or other leaders botch the last part of the job, not a second time.

Idealistically, the best way to thwart punk terrorists like Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev is to make sure that the things that they tried to undermine – our once-revered system of justice, our freedom of movement and assembly – are preserved intact. Practically, the cynical and unnecessary manipulations of the 2000s – such as torture, such as Gitmo, such as invading Iraq on false pretenses – only fanned the flames of anti-Americanism, and one of the best ways to reach our goal of preventing any future attacks like the one in Boston is to quench those flames now.

The early signals are mixed. The quickness with which the Obama administration involved a dubious standard to delay reading the surviving brother his Miranda rights, making a mockery of a landmark and cherished Supreme Court ruling, is deeply troubling. Even more appalling, though, is the way in which two prominent U.S. senators, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, would so quickly throw the Constitution in the toilet and deny a conventional civilian trial to an American citizen charged with violating American laws on American soil, to not observe the wisdom of ex-president Ronald Reagan and treat a terrorist as a common criminal. At the same time, the steel-eyed resolve with which most Americans are eager to return to our daily, unfettered lives after this attack gives me so much hope.

This time, will our leaders be as wise and as decent as the American people?