The Lockdown of Boston

“The return of terrorism to the U.S.”, was a phrase used on NPR today, as the city of Boston was literally locked down by the authorities.

The return of terror? Two young nutcases with low-tech bombs?

I don’t for a moment want to minimize the horror of what happened in Boston. Moreover—as an Englishman who lived in London all through the murderous IRA terror campaign of the 1970s and 1980s—I’m relieved to see just how robust and solidly the people of Boston reacted to the event. My personal fear when the bombing occurred was that, just like after 9/11, this media-saturated nation so unused to terrorist attacks on its own soil would go into a tailspin of fear, bringing the fragile economic recovery to a screeching halt. Instead, Bostonians were out on the streets the next day, laying wreaths at the bomb site and vowing not to be cowed.

Today, the streets of Boston are deserted except for thousands—no exaggeration—of heavily-armed police, FBI, and other authorities looking for the surviving mad bomber. A major metropolitan area locked down to find one nineteen-year-old.

I usually don’t believe in second-guessing police and intelligence forces—they have a phenomenally difficult  job to do, and typically do it pretty well. The decision to lock down the city, shut down transport (not to mention cutting off cellphone service immediately after the bombings)… I can’t imagine these decisions were made lightly.

On the other hand, I think we might consider whether this isn’t (i) overreaction, and (ii) a sinister, Orwellian glimpse of a post 9/11 security state in full action.  My point being that this is one individual at loose here, not a platoon of terrorists. One kid—admittedly armed and desperate, possible even carrying explosives—but still, one kid.

What kind of message does the willingness on the part of the authorities to shut down a city to hunt down one single person send? We can glimpse some of the reasoning: doing this might save lives, prevent a hostage event, make it much harder for the killer to flee…but still, is this a proportionate reaction? Or does it project an image of hysteria, amplifying an already tragic event and—with the all-too-eager help of the news media—turning it into a full-blown national crisis which will rock the nation’s already-fragile psyche? Now this precedent has been set, we can expect it to happen again.

I read not long ago that one of the morbid calculations that regulatory bodies have to make is the dollar value of a human life—a necessity when trying to decide whether to, say, build a pedestrian overpass, ban a chemical, etc.; in short, a cost-benefit analysis. Just a few years ago, that figure—the dollar value of a life—had been determined at around $8M; with the recession, it’s dropped to something closer to $6M, I believe.

Now let’s consider what it costs to shut down a city like Boston for a day. The business and production lost, the damage to personal incomes, etc. I can’t imagine it’s anything less than many billions of dollars. So in terms of pure cost-benefit, locking down the city seems a non-starter.

I can only think, then, that this has been done for two reasons: first to reduce the chances of the killer getting away to as near zero possible; and second, to send a message that the authorities will stop at nothing to catch anyone who commits an act of this sort.

These last are very powerful arguments, and I both understand and applaud them; I know for sure I wouldn’t ever want to make a decision like that. Still and all, I can’t help but feel that it sets a terrible precedent and—worse—underscores the idea that we’re all in danger, all the time, now that “terrorism has returned to the U.S.”. I think the authorities over-reacted.

If terrorism is ever to be defeated, it won’t be because of the application of overwhelming force by the state: it’ll be by people, by individuals, by every single one of us refusing to be cowed, refusing to live in fear. If they blow up a plane, get on a flight the next day; if they bomb a subway car, get on the subway; if they destroy a building, rebuild it taller, and don’t be ten years over it. And let’s stop dignifiying them with the name “terrorist”—these people are, and have always been, mad bombers, no more.

Terror is a state of mind.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Lockdown of Boston

  1. I have experience both in London and Israel of the way politically motivated bombings of civilians by mass murderers are handled and they bear no resemblance to what happened in Boston. The emphasis is on getting everything back to “normal” as quickly as possible. In Israel this is now done within the hour, or within hours, even with mass casualties, e.g. 20 dead, scores injured, as in several of the bus bombings in the early 2000s. In London an area around the bombing is sealed off sometimes for days at a time. Each country is different and clearly the US have to adopt a way of handling each event that best suits their culture and security structures.
    I agree that should these events become commonplace then the strategy used in Boston might change but as things stand this is unlikely to be necessary given the highly unusual circumstances of this particular attack.

    That said, Dario is right to point out that should there be a campaign of bombing than runs into months or years the Boston response is unwieldy, impractical, inordinately expensive and is more likely to engender paranoia and a sense of helplessness. In Israel, the only western democratic society to have dealt with systematic mass year-on-year attacks on its civilian population, the mess is cleared within minutes or hours of each attack and people just get on with their lives. The Israeli media comment, often with a note of pride, how quickly things have returned to “normal”. But in the end, each culture and society has to decide what suits them best. It is also worth pointing out the trauma endured by many as a result of these attacks. Psychological support to all affected is crucial, whatever the particular emergency response to any given attack.

    • Thanks for your very interesting comment, Tmanson. It’s great to have some feedback from someone who’s experienced events like this in Israel. Your point about every culture and society having to decide what suits it best is well taken, and echoes Griffin’s comments about our ability in democracies to change policies via the ballot box and by appeals to elected officials. I think part of the reason why the reaction here was so massive is because these events are (fortunately) still rare in the US, as you imply. Whether we’ll see an evolution of response type in years to come, should events like this occur again, remains to be seen. This is such a difficult issue. While I certainly hear all the points made (many of them outside this comments board), I still feel that a bad precedent has been set here, and that the authorities’ response in future may need to be more nuanced and tightly-focused.

      Dario

  2. And now the courts and juries of our peers will spend a few years working out the questions these suspects have raised.

  3. I’ll not go into too much in the way of detail about my background, but I am a police officer of thirteen years experience with a major metropolitan police department.

    Some clarifications/explanations I would like to give regarding Dario’s post:

    There were no paramilitary forces involved other than plainclothes officers of recognized law enforcement organizations duly authorized by the laws of the USA. There are National Guard formations who have been duly authorized by the governor of Massachusetts to support law enforcement personnel. They are wearing their proper uniforms and using properly indicated vehicles.

    A reason for cutting cellphones is to prevent further detonations if the bombers were using such devices to trigger them. Further, such IEDs can be detonated, accidentally, by communication device emissions (radio, cell, etc).

    Just because there are two persons identified in the field, does not, in _any_ way indicate that those two are the full extent of the cell, should they prove to be part of a terrorist organization.

    Some Conjecture and thoughts:

    Rapid, accurate deployment of overwhelming force (even potential overwhelming force) is its own deterrent. Showing the extent to which law enforcement is willing to go to put an end to the threat posed by such people is an effective deterrent. Anyone watching sees this, and can infer that it’s not a good idea to murder children and civilians, let alone police officers.

    When officers are slain by criminals, perimeters are set and overwhelming force deployed to deal with the issue. The sole major difference in this attack is the external threat that could be linked to these two persons, making the level of response required that much greater.

    With regard to our freedoms being infringed by the activities of the pursuing agencies: the people have the ability to change the policies of the government with their vote. Even before that, the courts are open and ready to hear the (I presume) multiple cases that will likely arise from this incident. I’m thinking primarily of the person arrested this morning for some activity that broke curfew, leading the media to think the gunman had been engaged.

    It’s not fast, it’s not immediate, but it is the way our country (and the UK) for that matter) have survived over time. Laws are enacted. They are broken. They are changed (or not).

    • Thanks very much for your comments, Griffin–I do appreciate them, as I know there’s more than one side to any story. I understood about the possibility of cellphones being used to detonate devices, my comment was really concerned with the–to an ordinary citizen–bewildering ability of the authorities to shut down pretty much all civilian activity. And I clearly misapplied the term “paramilitary,” (correcting post now–thanks for clarifying that). Also a good point about not knowing the full extent of the cell.

      Nonetheless, I believe that my thoughts on this probably represent those of a good many people at the moment. I think I made it clear in my post that I’m not so much second-guessing here as expressing the concern that, even though this may be SOP, and an effective SOP at that (they seem to have cornered the suspect as I write this), the ramifications of it and the precedent set is one that many people may question.

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