'We Don't Cower in Fear': Reconsidering the Boston Lockdown

What does it say if Americans further cut back on basic freedoms in response to last week's bombings? And do any of us seriously think we won't?

At a vigil for bomb victims outside the Cambridge City Hall, April 17 (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Some of the stories we tell about ourselves in the aftermath of terror are true. Many people react reflexively with bravery and compassion, rushing toward 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 Cambridge high school teacher remarked. "How could this be in our midst?" he wondered, as if diversity were a cure for 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. David Ortiz brags that "nobody is going to dictate our freedom," and I assume he hasn't heard of the Patriot Act or warrantless wiretaps, much less the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. 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 from the watchful eye of law enforcement. The Boston Globe is already clamoring for additional surveillance cameras, which are sure to be installed to the applause of a great many Bostonians. You can rationalize 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 over-reaction? When does an "excess of caution" help normalize 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 skeptical 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.

America's "values" are unshakeable, President Obama declared during Boston's post bombing inter-faith 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 militarization of police, the domestic use of drones, and the total information awareness state facilitated by Big Data, 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 inter-faith prayer, not to propagandize 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 inter-faith 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.