A city shut down, liberty surrendered

Wendy Kaminer reports from locked-down Boston, where Obama’s promise that ‘a bomb can’t beat us’ rang hollow.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

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Some of the stories we tell about ourselves in the aftermath of terror such as the Boston bombings are true. Many people react reflexively with bravery and compassion, rushing towards an attack to aid its victims. Many open their homes to strangers.

Some of the stories we tell are naive: ‘This is a progressive town, the People’s Republic’, a teacher at the Cambridge, Massachusetts high school attended by the Tsarnaev brothers remarked. ‘How could this be in our midst?’ he wondered, as if progressivism were a cure for all evil. DzhokhorTsarnaev was ‘not an outcast; he was not bullied’, the Cambridge school superintendent stressed, as if bullying were the cause of all evil.

Some of the stories we tell are bravado. When people praise Boston’s proverbial toughness, I shrug. Boston is home to over 600,000 individuals; some are resilient and others are not. Bravado has its virtues though, in times of grief and terror. It’s self-medicating. Maybe acting tough can help you feel tough. Maybe you can approximate the person you wish yourself to be.

But not all our bravado is helpful or harmless. Some of the stories we tell about the nation are delusions that cloak weaknesses and wrongs, which fester unacknowledged. Red Sox player David Ortiz brags that ‘nobody is going to dictate our freedom’, and I assume he hasn’t heard of the Patriot Act or wholesale warrantless wiretapping, much less the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. Crime novelist Dennis Lehane can be excused for declaring that ‘they messed with the wrong city’, but don’t take seriously his confidence that not much will change. ‘Trust me’, he adds implausibly, ‘we won’t be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this’.

Of course we will. We’ve been surrendering liberty in the hope of keeping ourselves safe for the past decade. The marathon bombings will hasten our surrender of freedom to the watchful eye of law enforcement. The Boston Globe is already clamouring for additional surveillance cameras, which are sure to be installed to the applause of many Bostonians. You can rationalise increased surveillance as a necessary or reasonable intrusion on liberty, but you can’t deny its intrusiveness, or inevitable abuses.

You shouldn’t deny the fear that drives the diminution of freedom. You’ll only end up looking foolish. ‘A bomb can’t beat us’, President Obama assured Bostonians three days after the attack. ‘We don’t hunker down… we don’t cower in fear.’ Yes we do. Less than 24 hours after Obama left town, hundreds of thousands of us were ‘sheltering in place’.

For those of us miles from Watertown and the vicinity of the hunt for Dzhokhor Tsarnaev, the ‘sheltering’ was voluntary. Out of fear or faith in law enforcement and a desire to cooperate (or lack of anything better to do with the city shut down), people stayed indoors. In Boston, not far from the bombing site but far enough from the action, only a few renegades wandered the streets and the Public Garden for much of the day; traffic was sparse. Even the police and military personnel were gone, or not in evidence. Most were probably in Watertown.

Was the lockdown of the entire Boston metropolitan area an overreaction? When does an ‘excess of caution’ help normalise gratuitously repressive excesses in security? What restrictions would we have been encouraged, asked or required to observe if Tsarnaev hadn’t been caught? One of my sceptical civil libertarian friends blackly predicted an invasion of 200,000 new security personnel, armed with howitzers. He’d have reacted with horror, but others would have welcomed them with flowers.

Heavily armed law-enforcement and military or quasi-military personnel were deployed in Boston for days after the bombing. How do you respond to the unfamiliar presence of troops in your neighbourhood? You can greet them with a sigh of relief or a shudder. You can assume the compelling need for their vigilance, or you can consider it a chilling overreach. If your mistrust of government is acute, you might even regard the troop presence as propaganda for the military industrial security state, seeking our gratitude for trampling our rights, while denying that it’s doing so.

America’s ‘values’ are unshakeable, President Obama declared during Boston’s post-bombing interfaith prayer service. ‘In the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good. In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion’, he intoned, as if ‘we’ had never chosen torture and he had never chosen not to prosecute it. In the face of terror, he claimed, ‘our fidelity to our way of life, to a free and open society, will only grow stronger’.

No, it won’t. Most likely it will continue to weaken while the secretive Bush/Obama security state continues gaining strength, feeding on our fears. In its shadows, watch-lists will grow, along with surveillance of peaceful protesters, the militarisation of the police, the domestic use of drones, the total information awareness state facilitated by Big Data, and indefinite detention for terror suspects, among other betrayals of our ‘way of life’ that civil libertarians have been futilely chronicling for years.

Am I being unfair to the president, who succeeded in soothing and inspiring many who heard his address? I assume that he came in good faith to interfaith prayer, not to propagandise but to comfort religious Bostonians. The irreligious don’t have to worry about God’s absence when terror strikes, and, in any case, they were not entirely excluded from the interfaith mourning ritual. President Obama is fluent in the language of civil religion. He offered an eloquent tribute to our secular, communal and civic strengths and our tenacious hold on liberty. If only his story were true.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her most recent book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) A version of this article first appeared at theatlantic.com on 21 April.

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