Where is Sam Adams when we need him?The historic city where that feisty American patriot stood tall for liberty from British tyranny, and where the original Boston Patriots sounded the opening salvos of our War of Independence at Lexington and Concord, fell subdued, silent, and submissive last week under a government lockdown that looked remarkably like martial law.
Sam Adams: Unlikely to shelter in place
Nearly the entire population of a million-plus-person metropolis lurked anxiously "in place" behind their locked doors and drawn curtains, while legions of brawny, Keflar-padded police troopers, armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weapons, stalked aggressively in complete control of the city and its suburbs. Fleets of armed helicopters patrolled the airspace, while armored personnel carriers, bristling with more troops and military weaponry, rumbled menacingly through the silent and deserted streets.Public and private transportation were at a standstill, and commerce and businesses were closed in rigid lockdown. Classes were cancelled at Harvard, MIT, and the city's other bastions of left-wing learning (which shows that even the most dire crises have at least some beneficial side effects). In a city intensely addicted to the opiate of professional spectator sports, even the Red Sox and Bruin games had been cancelled, and the great, publicly-funded arenas lay silent and empty.
Was some monstrous twenty-first century Luftwaffe flying menacingly overhead, about to carpet-bomb the city? Had an unhinged Kim Jong-Un somehow inserted a crack brigade of North Korean commandoes to strike a crippling blow against a major American metropolis?Was some gigantic, mutant monster like Godzilla or King Kong rampaging towards Faneuil Hall and Boston Commons?
Or had even large, organized gangs of urban thugs or right-wing militia launched a violent, coordinated uprising against law and order?
Well, not exactly. Nothing quite like that. It was indeed something sinister and dangerous, but rather less imposing in scope and magnitude. The threat that elicited this massive martial response was posed by a single, solitary 19-year-old man.
Boston Police on Patrol in Watertown
There can be no doubt, then, that the effort to capture or kill this armed fugitive warranted forceful and intensive measures, not only to bring the perpetrator to justice but also to prevent him from inflicting any further harm on the citizenry. Not only legitimate law enforcement and national security concerns justified a forceful and relentless response, but the natural impulse for prompt retribution against a monstrous crime understandably intensified the responsive effort. All of that is indisputable.But what can and should be questioned was the extreme and unprecedented scope of what in fact occurred – the imposition of sweeping, heavy-handed police state tactics, amounting to virtual martial law, upon an entire metropolitan area. An estimated 9,000 law enforcement officers -- the equivalent of about three U.S. Army brigades, or eight battalions -- were mobilized and deployed in force. All in pursuit of a solitary fugitive. Wave after wave of militarized police and armored personnel carriers rolled and swarmed through the city and suburbs, conducting door-to-door home searches, and giving Boston every appearance of an occupied city. What was euphemistically labeled as a "shelter in place" policy effectively reduced the citizenry to prisoners in their own homes. Transportation and commerce were frozen. Waiting in submissive confinement was the order of the day. Except for those roughly hustled out of their homes by the implacable search parties. And, in the end, the wounded fugitive was apparently unarmed when he was finally located by a civilian -- who was able to leave his house and take a closer look at the boat in his driveway only because the lockout had been lifted.
Had this lockdown policy been confined to a reasonably circumscribed area where the fugitive was likely to be located, it would be far more understandable. But it was not. It apparently extended to nearly the entire Boston metropolitan area, including Waltham, Newton, Belmont, and Cambridge.It would take a marvel of almost supernatural mobility and ferocity to justify such an extensive regional lockdown in pursuit of a single person. But there is no indication that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, however nefarious his terrorist crimes, was even a trained or experienced operative, let alone one so skilled, elusive, and formidable as to warrant the sweeping area paralysis that was adopted here. Indeed, after the Thursday night shootout in which the elder brother was killed, the younger terrorist apparently escaped on foot. That factor alone – even putting aside whether he was significantly wounded at that stage -- should have prompted the authorities to exercise sensible restraint in the area scope of their lockdown. How far, after all, could an embattled fugitive roam on foot when armed police were everywhere, and surveillance helicopters circled overhead?
Almost equally remarkable was the unquestioning acquiescence in this unprecedented and indiscriminate exercise of police power—indeed, the apparent approval and endorsement of it -- by the reporting media and the Boston populace. The strong instinct and spirit of liberty that infused the likes of Sam Adams and Patrick Henry in revolutionary times – and caused them to bristle at British intrusions far less oppressive than Gov. Patrick's "shelter in place" directive -- appears to be largely extinguished in Boston and among the members of America's contemporary mainstream press. The confinement of more than a million people to their homes to facilitate the search for a solitary teenage fugitive is apparently no big deal in Boston.Yet in the face of an unprecedented exercise of police powers that had many of the earmarks of martial law, one would expect the press or a modest element of liberty-loving citizens to at least raise a word of protest or demand a constitutional justification. On the contrary, however, it appears the near unanimous Bostonian and media response to the episode was endorsement and approval of the government's sweeping impositions.
All in all, this episode does not bode well for the future. If federal, state, and local governments are so ready to exercise such draconian powers in the face of the threat posed by a solitary fugitive, and if Americans are so ready to surrender their liberties on such a precarious justification, what will stand in the way of more sustained police state tactics when much broader threats arise -- or are merely posited? And our enemies must be smiling at the prospect of shutting down whole American cities at such a small expenditure of resources.Apologists for the tactics employed in Boston have not only argued that they were plainly justified by the presence of a dangerous fugitive on the loose, but that there was no actual mandatory "lockdown," and that the confinement of the citizenry to their homes was purely voluntary.
The argument that the oppressive and sweeping tactics employed were objectively justified proves far too much. Even as we speak, murderous fugitives more threatening and capable than the neophyte 19-year old Tsarnaev are undoubtedly at large in various parts of the country. One need only start by examining the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List – all of whom are dangerous felons at large, by definition -- before moving on to the broader universe of dangerous fugitive felons pursued by the numerous fugitive task forces coordinated and led by the U.S. Marshals Service. Dangerous fugitives are scattered across the American landscape. Should government impose sweeping lockdowns wherever they surface? Only recently, a far more formidable and dangerous fugitive than Tsarnaev – highly-trained and experienced ex-cop Christopher Dorner, who had murdered three, wounded two, and credibly threatened further mayhem – was on the loose in the San Diego area. Before Dorner met his demise, the authorities did impose a limited lockdown, but it was prudently confined to the small resort village of Big Bear, where the authorities had narrowed their search, and was not comparable to what occurred in Boston.The fact is that if the presence of a single armed and dangerous fugitive is sufficient to justify imposition of broad metropolitan or regional lockdowns, then government police power will exceed anything we have heretofore tolerated, and our liberties would be seriously imperiled. And the mere fact that the particular fugitive in question may be defined as a terrorist does not alter the essential concern.
Finally, those who disparage the concerns raised by the Boston lockdown and the associated police tactics have sought to portray it as an essentially voluntary program that coerced no one. But there is much evidence to the contrary.As shown in widespread photos, electronic message boards overhanging the highways blazoned the stark directive, "Shelter in Place in Effect in Boston." Citizens reported receiving reverse 911 "robocalls" on early Friday morning, sternly instructing them to stay in their homes. The early news reports that alerted the citizenry to the lockdown did not suggest a voluntary program: "Boston lockdown: Authorities order residents to shelter in place during massive manhunt," blared the NBC News report.
Other evidence of coercive police state tactics has emerged, and who knows how many other incidents have gone unreported – since in this peculiar scenario, the media has largely acted as the government's cheerleader, rather than as a watchdog. In one incident, it was reported that on the afternoon of the lockdown armed police charged and surrounded a solitary citizen who had merely emerged from his house on Dexter Street in Watertown. "Why did you get out of your house?," the angry troopers reportedly demanded, and proceeded to slap handcuffs on the bewildered man.The blog "Poor Richard's News" has provided further graphic evidence of what appears to be objectionable police coercion applied to innocent citizens, including videos providing disturbing images of the harsh house-to-house search tactics used in Watertown (see YouTube video below). As demonstrated there and elsewhere, it is difficult to consider a search request as voluntary when it is made by a cluster of militarized police brandishing their firearms on your doorstep.
Finally, of course, there is the fact that the governor finally announced at some time after 6PM that the lockdown was lifted and people were free to go outside, but to be "vigilant." That the governor so generously decided to give the people their liberty passes to go outside is difficult to reconcile with a voluntary exercise in citizen self-confinement. The voluntary aspect of the unprecedented Boston lockdown appears to have been strictly technical.
Apart from the fact that the Marathon terrorist was rather swiftly apprehended (apparently due to a tip from a citizen who left his home after the lockdown was lifted), the best thing to be said for the Boston lockdown was that it lasted less than a full day and was finally lifted by the governor without any apparent pressure from the citizenry, the media, or the judiciary. And, in fairness, it must be conceded that the unprecedented extent of the lockdown was imposed in response to a novel, post-9-11 terrorist scenario, following a genuinely gruesome atrocity in a setting long associated with civic celebration and good will. Hopefully, the review of this disturbing episode will bring renewed attention to the need for balancing the exigencies of terrorist-related law enforcement with the personal liberties that were first asserted so fiercely by Sam Adams and other feisty patriots in the city that today seems so far removed in spirit from those revolutionary times.