Publisher's Note — May 16, 2013, 11:55 am

In Boston, An Exercise in Intimidation

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, why did so few people protest the decision to lock down parts of the city?

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on May 15, 2013.

I remember the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, as if it were last week, but until I heard the news of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, I had forgotten several of that November day’s salient details. About the same time my grammar-school principal, Marshall Benjamin, gathered us to announce the shooting of President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald was fleeing the scene of his crime — in a municipal bus, a taxi, and on foot through the busy streets of Dallas. Sought by the police (since he was the only employee of the Texas School Book Depository missing from work), he killed an officer who tried to question him and eventually took refuge in a movie theater. Thanks to an alert shoe-store manager, who had noticed Oswald sneaking into the Texas Theatre without buying a ticket, the police were called.

Oswald was apprehended after briefly watching War Is Hell — an out-of-competition selection for the 1961 Cannes Film Festival — but not before he tried to shoot the arresting officer with a pistol from his seat in the back of the cinema. Less than an hour and a half after the president was shot, Kennedy’s assassin was in custody, and very much alive for questioning.

I relate these incidents to emphasize the differences between the respective manhunts in Dallas and in Boston, nearly fifty years later. Comparisons may be odious, but in this case they usefully highlight how much America has changed, and for the worse, since Kennedy was murdered — but also since 9/11.

New Hampshire state trooper canvassing a neighborhood in Watertown, Mass. Photo by Sally Vargas/ Talk Radio News Service

New Hampshire State trooper canvassing a neighborhood in Watertown, Mass. Photo by Sally Vargas/ Talk Radio News Service

How is it that much of an urban area of several million people could be shut down for nearly an entire day with so few people protesting an essentially military decision by civilian officials? Unlike the conspiracy theorists who will doubtless dispute my Oswald narrative, I’m not suggesting that Governor Deval Patrick planned to seize power and name himself king of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But I still haven’t heard a convincing argument that confining people to their homes in Watertown, Cambridge, and Boston led the police any faster to the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. On the contrary, it wasn’t until the lockdown was lifted that David Henneberry went outside, noticed that his boat cover was stained with blood, and called the police.

Perhaps the political differences between 1963 and 2013 are so obvious that I shouldn’t make the point that the non-shutdown of Texas’s second-largest city — buses, taxis, pedestrians, and cinephiles continued to circulate — in no way impeded the rapid arrest of a fugitive assassin who shocked the country to its core. I understand the fear of unexploded bombs; I sympathize with the victims. But there was something terribly wrong with the government’s response to the bombing.

In Boston, as in Dallas, a law-enforcement agent (Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier) was apparently killed by an assassin after the initial crime was committed and the public terrorized. Nevertheless, in Dallas, the National Guard was not mobilized, and armored vehicles did not parade around Dealey Plaza.

As Emilo Viano, of the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University, noted on Quebec radio, the massive, disproportionate show of force in Boston “was practically a military exercise” that “demonstrated more a wish to see what nowadays can be done through cooperation by federal, state and local police with the military.” In short, it was a tactical operation designed more for the symbolic value of its intimidation than to catch the killers.

But who in public life dares to say such things in the midst of a terrorist “crisis,” when everyone seems impressed by the sight of massed men in uniform. Only the marginalized seemed up to the task. Take Ron Paul, who denounced a “military-style occupation” and “police-state tactics.” Meanwhile, Ralph Nader correctly pointed out how discordant it must seem to foreigners to see “a great city in total lockdown . . . when Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Yemenis experience far greater casualties and terror attacks several times a week.” For Nader, the lesson to be drawn from Boston by angry Muslims overseas “is that, until now, the high-tech buttons were only being pushed by the drone operators against them. After Boston they can see that other low-tech buttons can now be pushed inside the U.S. against defenseless gatherings of innocent people.”

Further, the show of force in Boston does two destructive things: First, it feeds the paranoia of the National Rifle Association, and gun militants in general, and encourages them to stockpile even more weapons. In the wake of the Boston bombings, has the fight for stricter control of firearms been advanced? Has anyone dared call for limits on fireworks purchases?

Second, and probably worse, Governor Patrick has signaled future terrorists that when they attack American targets they will likely get twice the bang for their buck. Not only will they kill and maim innocents in the immediate vicinity of the bombs; they’ll have the added satisfaction of seeing millions of free people cowering far from the scene of the crime.

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  • Ashlander

    As a Bostonian who enjoys watching the Marathon here nearly every year, I was more than happy to stay put for a few hours while the police did their business catching the suspected bomber. Hell, I was rooting for them to catch him!

  • Whodem

    Being a greater boston resident I was caught in the anxiety and paranoia of the bombing events as they unfolded. I would completely agree with you that the lock down was more to flex some military muscle then anything else. Even before the photos were released of the suspects, there was this blood in the water feeling.

  • Earthcallingjohn

    Terrorism is self perpetuating. It is meaningless without the media. And US media cooperates to the max. Dare I say, US media outlets, and US media consumers, get very very turned on by “terrorism”.

    Indeed, the response to this attack can only act to inspire more of this nonsense. Lots of bang for ones buck . . as the author of this piece has said . .

  • Jeremy

    As a Cambridge resident, I think it shows the vice in which Republicans and the “anti-terror” establishment (Trillions and Growing!) hold Democrats, to which autocracy does not come automatically. When something happens, they can either face an endless chorus of “Soft on Terror!” to which the shouters are themselves of course immune, or they may overreact with tragicomic flamboyance, as did the governor on the day. So I think it was less about intimidation and more about a liberal governor trying to prove his anti-terror bona fides to people who will despise, hate, and distrust him no matter what he does.

    But I would like to share a scene from that day. At around six or seven o’clock there was a very substantial crowd at the bar across from the Marriot Long Wharf Hotel, where people had been drinking all day – these were tourists and visitors, and what else was there to do? About thirty or forty policemen – or national guardsmen, or whatever, the uniform people who were everywhere that day – came over all in a group. It is intimidating to see a group like that no matter the purpose, and of course all of us at the bar were technically violating the shelter order.

    We all wondered whether they were going to make everyone disperse. They all came over, apologized for intruding, and asked the bar owner to turn up the TV, because they had heard the fugitive might have been caught but no one knew anything. So he did, and a few minutes later CNN confirmed that the guy had been caught in the boat. The police cheered, and all walked away, some joking about how the news knew what was going on better than they did. Others just wanted to go home, after what had been a very long day for many of them. I agree with the author that military style lockdown comes frighteningly easy to our leaders, but I think the folks wearing the boots on the ground are, at least, a bit less comfortable with the whole police state idea.

  • James

    One important difference between Boston in 2013 and Dallas in 1963 was that the people who were killed or injured in Boston were random civilians, and nobody knew who or what (or if) the perpetrators might attack next. As awful as the Kennedy assassination was, it clearly had a specific target and most people on the street were not it.

    I would also point out Boston wasn’t locked down for the first three days after the bombing, and that in the meantime Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left town to attend a party at his college some 60 miles away. If he hadn’t come back to Cambridge, who knows how far he might have gone and how long it would have taken to find him. Does this retroactively help justify locking down the city once it was clear that he was actually there?

  • Zack

    Two men running around with bombs, having just killed a cop and hijacked a car is a much greater risk to the general public than a single man with a gun….

    • Ted_Fontenot

      Yes. Not only that, it was not known if there were not other bombers and other bombs. I know there’s nothing like Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but let’s have a sense of decency about it.

  • gypsydoctor

    I live in Newton, next town from Watertown, and I was officially “locked down” too, even though I live five miles away from the shooting. (The suspect was eventually found just 1000 feet from where he dumped his escape car, a fact that has not been emphasized in the news.)
    As the beautiful afternoon of “lock down day” wore on, I got fed up and went for a walk of about two miles. It was a very strange experience. I expected to see at least some people outside, but I saw only one person and just a few cars. I figured that at least 10% of the population would rebel against what seemed like an over-reaction, but I was obviously wrong. It was not long before I felt like a trespasser on the city streets and that I was at risk for being detained as suspicious.

  • Ted_Fontenot

    What an asinine comparison and thesis.

  • Cam Ghent

    Is there anyone out there besides this old cynical curmudgeon who thinks there may have been something mildly ironic when the terrorized Bostonians united to sing their national anthem with the words ” bombs bursting in air”? I recognize that Francis Scot Keyes wrote his poem to celebrate the victory over those nasty Brits and Canuks who tried to take Fort McHenry, and it seems almost sacrilegious to write anything negative about the poem. However, to adopt such a celebration of violence as a national anthem ( blame Herert Hoover), seems to me to contribute to the mindset that violence is synonymous with the way things should be done in America

  • Lebron

    I feel you, but comparing a hunt for a target believed to have a backpack full of explosives and a gun to an assassin believed to have one gun does nothing for me. The statements you made stand for themselves, no need to appeal to the emotional connection between two dissimilar events.

  • rpasley

    While I understand the civil liberty concerns about the way this all happened, and I was not in the immediate area under lockdown, I do think that this happened the way it did less for reasons related to any ‘police-state’ reflex than because communications, especially social media via smartphone, now informs the public so quickly (though quite imperfectly) that we are now captives of what is fed to us by our own digital devices. When exposed to the news that a shootout and massive manhunt for a clearly desperate criminal is happening a mile or two or three away, who among us would want to NOT know that (as would have been the case just a decade ago) and possibly become entangled in a situation with which we had no prior knowledge?Much of the behavior of residents was self-regulate under these unique circumstances by simply being (imperfectly) informed by their media of choice (Facebook, Twitter, and the equally imperfect mass media that uses FB/Twitter in their news-gathering because it doesn’t cost them a penny and it’s sensationally titillating).

  • David Robinette

    Your sensibilities may have been disturbed by the events after the bombing, but the most likely reason for that is because you clearly do not understand that what was transpiring was real life, as real as it gets, even though you watched it on television.

    When persons known or unknown deliberately detonate explosive devices in a place crowded with innocent people, and then try to avoid arrest by engaging police officers in a running gun fight, and one of the suspects dies as the other eludes apprehension — this is what most people who live on the earth’s surface and not in an ivory tower refer to as a civil emergency.

    Long ago, our ancestors decided it would be better for everyone if they organized and trained some volunteers to do the dirty work in such cases, just to be sure it was done according to the law, or as close to the law as the prevailing circumstances permitted.

    The police certainly aren’t perfect, but when there is a man or group of men running around town with bombs and guns, I am very happy that the police are even willing to go find him/them, and I do not mind one bit the minor inconvenience of keeping out of their way while they do their job.

    You, Sir, are a goddamned idiot.

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