I caught a fair bit of hell for being upfront about my sentiment that locking down Boston and essentially carrying out a military invasion of the metro area was overwrought, obnoxious and unnecessary – even dangerous.
I’m going to always, to some extent, be THAT civil libertarian, and I even have some friends who (thank god) find that endearing. But my beliefs are more than a cute tchotchke that sits well among a collection of other amusing personalities. In the name of understanding, if not ultimately solidarity, I have deemed it worthy to undertake the following list of my grievances.
Most Americans are fundamentally utilitarian, but it remains buried under a mountain of sentimentalism. That’s not a bad thing. Pure utilitarianism leads us to uncomfortable conclusions that go against our moral impulses. It’s not comprehensive. But it’s obscured the most during times of apparent crisis – when the “something must be done” mentality kicks in. But every decision has costs, including the decision to ignore them.
This one was approximately $300 million.
That figure is the foregone economic activity which is the necessary result of shutting down a large city for most of the working day.
Maybe you’re the kind of person who thinks that $300 million was worth it to catch a wounded 19 year old suspect. But I doubt most people are.
2) We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.
We are fortunate no one was hurt during the lockdown. But it’s abundantly clear from the photos that this was, as it increasingly tends to be, a military operation. As America’s police becomes more and more militarized, the amount of firepower allowed on the residential streets of America only increases, as does the danger. The greatest potential for death lay in the possibility of collateral damage incurred by an errant cop and in the possibility, however remote, of equipment malfunction in one of the various but ultimately useless tactical vehicles and helicopters brought in to sweep Watertown – not the suspect at large.
Now, your response might be that that’s an absurdly remote possibility. Remember that the NYPD, with only handguns, shot nine people last summer near the Empire State Building while attempting to gun down a man who killed a former colleague he had beef with. The NYPD is now being sued, and rightfully so. This happens. And the danger is all the greater when we sanction greater and greater firepower in the hands of our would-be protectors, and greater and greater tolerance for abuses when they are overly aggressive.
3) Media Matters
The day of the lockdown started with the Boston PD botching an attempt to capture both suspects, alive. In any reasonable world, this would have been the frame.
That world was left behind after the bombing. Normally the media/government dynamic is stable. Media focuses on government, government is proportionally attentive. But attentions are divided and we never reach criticality. Nothing like a terrorist attack makes it go critical faster. I’m not using the language of nuclear physics to be coy – we talk about “tipping points” all the time and this is of that flavor. There is a fundamental, instantaneous change evoked by a terrorist attack.
The dynamic changes to media monofocus on the site of the act. 24 hours a day. Non-stop coverage. Americans become monofocused on retribution. Local authorities feel the intensity of a thousand suns to “do justice” or whatever term you want to slap on the primal urge of “getting even.”
This was the context of the failed attempt to get their man, which intensified the feedback. This was better than Homeland. Television couldn’t make this up. The media was ON IT. Live non-stop coverage of an ongoing chase after several days of interviewing the same five people who knew the suspects and a few of the victims, desperate for answers or leads or what we typically call “news.” And thus the government did only what could be done in a critical state – escalate the response. It gave the world better television in the name of righteous indignation and resolve. And the media gave thanks.
It is a great and disturbing irony that reason is most absent when it’s most needed – when we need the press to stand athwart and yell stop, to beg the question as to why the collective punishment of lockdown and paramilitary invasion should be inflicted on the people of Boston when it was the police themselves who missed their opportunity to end it all hours earlier, to ask what it says that it was the restored freedom of movement of the lockdown lifting that allowed a man to check on his beloved boat and to notice the blood on the keel.
These questions will generally go unasked.
4) The Road to Serfdom
Every ideology has a road to serfdom. The only one that seems to truly have materialized is that of the civil libertarians and we have been walking down it every day since 9/11. It has been more or less constant policy since then to gradually chip away at the civil freedoms Americans had gained and to reverse the ascendance of freedom which had more or less been continuous (painstaking, tedious, excruciatingly slow, but roughly monotonic) since the founding.
The corollary here is that every time we accept these little compromises, we are undermining the structure of our freedom. Again – tipping point. The security state will continue to undermine us with minor inconveniences until it is too much and too late. Death by a thousand cuts.
Vigilance is bad medicine. It’s never going to be popular to fight the swell of public outcry and demand we make no compromises to liberty. But we already tolerated enough after 3,000 people died on 9/11 (wire-tapping, the PATRIOT Act, drones, indefinite war, indefinite detention, etc.). This week we tolerated marshall law in a large city after 3 people died in a bombing and an officer was killed during the chase several days later. It looks like we’re about to tolerate (I hope I’m wrong) refusing to recite to an accused man his basic right to not be self-incriminating. This tolerance only begets further abuses.
“This time is different” is an absurd excuse because it denies the very essence of “rights” which are eternal and omnipresent.