Sunday, April 21, 2013

Boston: Be Afraid, Be Absolutely Afraid!

Once, perhaps around the time when the Bill of Rights was written, some Americans seemed to recognize that police were properly given power only to ensure that the citizens could go about their business unmolested.  But, as the recent “lockdown” (as the New York Times approvingly put it Saturday) of a major American metropolis, in fear of an armed teenager, terrifyingly demonstrates, the people now have liberty only insofar as it doesn’t interfere with police business. 

Last Friday, in service of the manhunt for the surviving Marathon bomber, millions of people were put on house arrest in the Boston area, in perhaps the greatest pants-pissing spasm of self-aggrandizing hysteria the world has ever known.  When Bostonians awoke that day they were by the police and the elected authorities “requested” to stay home, stay indoors, “advised” that their mass transit system was shut down and that the roads would all be closed.  Alas, too many Americans, having lately learned the habit of obeisance to all sorts of new authority, and having little better to do than stay indoors and watch TV all day, have no trouble complying with such a request.  But surely there were thousands who had things  they desperately wanted or needed to accomplish that day, proposals, marriages, honeymoons, long-dreamed vacation, kids to feed, wages to earn, biopsies and diagnoses, perhaps business meetings, job interviews, research tasks for which they had traveled far.  Some of these things will get rescheduled of course, only some anguish and money lost, but some of them won’t ever happen now.  Lives will have changed, a few lives will have been essentiallhy ruined, in addition to those destoyed on Monday, because a wounded teenager in Watertown, whose picture everyone in the nation had seen, was deemed such an existential threat to the entire metropolitan area, that the citizens were not allowed to go outside until further notice.  It is worth noting here, that the subject of the manhunt was only discovered by a citizen going about his business normally, minutes after the citizens of Watertown (and greater Boston) were released from their captivity.  The lockdown had actually delayed the suspect's discovery.  Had “Keep calm and carry on,” been the message of the authorities, this might have happened ten hours earlier, sparing merchants millions in lost patronage, the poor millions in lost wages, sundry others incalculable anguish, and the people of Boston an overreaction that, from the perspective of people who deal regularly with real danger, makes them a laughingstock.

The hysteria of the media and the police here, if viewed soberly, is bleakly farcical.  It is true that the police and other authorities only “requested” and “advised” citizens to stay indoors. But everybody broadcasting seemed to do everything possible to sensationalize the threat, cowing the people into staying home – and just incidentally staying tuned.  But even the most rational people, the ones who knew better than to be very scared of the one fugitive, had ample reason to comply with the martial law “request” – the streets were flooded with armored gangs of trigger-happy roid ragers, most just itching to shoot a “terrorist,” and cop-killer, and in no mood to listen to any guff about a citizen’s right to go about freely.  If one chose not to comply with the “request” one might well end up in jail – possibly with a split lip and a face-full of pepper spray for impertinence – or one might even get shot.  And you can bet that no cop would be held accountable for whatever force was used on citizens who didn’t find the commissioner’s request binding.  (Saturday’s issue of the Times also explains how two police Commanders in New York were recently exonerated after sucker-punching and pepper-spraying peaceful protesters on video.)  In a twist reminiscent of The Onion or The Simpsons, the seriousness and priority of the authorities was epitomized by the announcement that, alone among businesses, Dunkin Donuts shops could open, so that cops could get the fat-bombs so apparently essential to their mission.

This is where the War on Terror has brought us.  “Lockdown,” quite literally a concept exported now from prison into the public sphere.  Thus the devolution of criminal punks into terrorists is paralleled by the demotion of citizens into prisoners.  Henceforth fat unaccountable bozos in blue uniforms will have the power to make all the citizens of a city prisoners if they deem one individual sufficient threat.  And what will be the threshold for that sufficient threat?  Must the individual be credibly suspected to have nuclear arms or deadly biological agents or entanglement with formidable foreign enemies?  If the Boston precedent stands, a fugitive with crude pipe-bomb capability, a firearm, and a history of violence will suffice to impose martial law.  So this is the kind of thing that can happen in any big city in America at any time.  And now that the police and the media have turbocharged the significance of a pair of sadistic creeps (for similar creeps to see all over the world), their sort of murderous stunt is more likely to happen, a la Columbine, more often than before.  The exponential overreaction will have emboldened the creeps; it will lure into existence crimes that would otherwise not have happened.  In their nauseating and grandiose self-importance the talking heads of TV and our power-drunk officials have not made us safer.  Nor have they made us more admirable.

Keep calm and carry on, people.  And Bostonians, hold your official accountable for their exponentially hysterical overreaction.