Why It Was Wrong to Shut Down Boston After the Bombing

Decisions made in the aftermath of the marathon two years ago could have implications for crisis management in other cities.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

When two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston marathon on April 15, 2013, police officers appropriately shut down the immediate vicinity but not the entire city. As federal, state, and local law enforcement sprang into action, not knowing if there would be a second wave of attacks, Bostonians felt anger, sadness, and fear. Yet they carried on living for most of several days. Then, on the night of April 18, several hours after police released a photograph of the bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev ambushed and murdered MIT policeman Sean Collier. In the pre-dawn hours of April 19, Tamerlan was killed in a gunfight with police, Dzhokhar fled, and police once again locked down a discrete neighborhood, confident that the remaining suspect was somewhere within their perimeter.

Had officials gone no farther, events would have played out just as they eventually did: The young terrorist would've been arrested after being discovered—unarmed, wounded, and bleeding—inside the backyard boat of a Watertown homeowner. Instead, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick asked all residents of Boston and its environs to voluntarily "shelter in place" even as he shut down all bus and train service in the entire metropolitan area. He has always stood by that decision.

Now former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis has defended the shutdown too. And while I understand the reluctance to criticize men who did their best in trying times, the impulse to be charitable shouldn't prevent us from reaching this conclusion: The wrongheadedness of the judgment call that they made is clear in hindsight. Their error may be understandable. It is certainly forgivable. May no one condemn them.

But present and future American officials should learn from their mistake and that requires facing it fully. "We haven’t seen a lockdown and an occupation of an American city on the scale of what happened in Boston after the marathon since the Watts riots," Radley Balko would point out in the Washington Post, "not in Oklahoma City after the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995, not in Atlanta after the 1996 bombing in Centennial Olympic Park, not in D.C. during the 2002 sniper attacks, not after a series of pipe bombs went off in federal courthouse in San Diego in 2008, not during the dozens of instances in which a mass killer or serial killer was still at large. In Boston, 19,000 National Guard troops moved into an American city, not to put down a civil uprising, quell riots or dispel an insurrection, but to search for a single man. Armored vehicles motored up and down neighborhoods. Innocent people were confronted in their homes at gunpoint or had guns pointed at them for merely peering through the curtains of their own windows."

Knowing that it turned out to be unnecessary doesn't demonstrate on its own that the shutdown was the wrong decision to make at the time. But listening to Boston journalist Juliette Kayyem's new interview with former Commissioner Davis, it strikes me that his sympathetic rendering of their 2013 logic reveals a significant flaw.

Here's the story as he relates it:

Yeah, there was a big debate, it happened in the MBTA command vehicle. There were a lot of principles involved. Mayor Menino was there. I think he was on the phone at that time. The governor was in the command post. There was the head of the MBTA police, the head of the state police, myself, the head of the Boston police. The FBI. And Rich Davey was on the telephone. So Rich was giving us very specific information, because at the time he was the Secretary of Transportation.

Here's the dilemma that we faced. There's a bus stop close to where this incident happened. We think the guy is still in the area. That bus starts to run its routes and the guy can get on the bus. And with a pressure cooker explosive on a bus we have a hostage situation. So the bus connects with the transit authorities with the subways. So the question was, can we shut down the bus route.

So far, the right answer seems clear: Of course they could shut down a bus route, and of course that particular bus route should have been shut down, along with any others within the perimeter where the suspect was hiding out.

It's what Davis said next that confounded me:

So the bus connects with the transit authorities with the subways. So the question was, can we shut down the bus route. Well, if we shut down the bus route we're going to strand people who come to that bus everyday. Well, let's shut down just that line of the transit. Well if you shut that down people are going to be stranded at different spots where it gets shut down. So Rich Davey really laid it out, he said, "This is an all or nothing proposition." And that really did set the stage for the debate.

Yes, if you shut down a bus line, people at various stops on the line will be stranded. And if you shut down a train line, same deal. But by what logic do those premises lead to the conclusion that one must shut down all bus lines or no bus lines?

Back to the story:

I remember the governor asking, "Are you saying we're going to shut the trains down coming from Lowell and down south? We're going to shut everything down? And Rich said, "That's the choice you have to make—you're either in this or you're not." And then we started to talk about the snowstorm that had happened just a few weeks beforehand. We had shut the city down because of a snow threat. And I said to the governor, we don't know—at the time there were a lot of unfolding events, that a cell may have been activated. There were three different incidents in play that led us to believe that this might be a wider conspiracy than just the two brothers. I said to the governor, "we don't know what we have here. This is at least as dangerous as a snowstorm. I think we tell people to stay home, take the day off, and let us catch this guy." And the governor and the mayor went back and forth. The mayor was not in support of shutting the city down. But the governor made the call.

Again, as best I can tell, the premise, "That's the choice you have to make—you're either in this or you're not," is just false. Lots of intermediate choices were available. At the very least, they should have been regarded as plausible, attractive options. In hindsight, it is abundantly clear that they were superior options.

Here's the rest of Davis' story:

INTERVIEWER: Did you have a sense of when it would end?

No we didn't. We were in this for the long run. And even though many of my officers hadn't slept in days we were going to run this thing to ground and make sure that 20-block area that we had cordoned off was fully searched. And one of the problems was, the governor was getting pressure from the president to open up the city. The governor tells the story, and I've heard him tell it several times now, that he was back in the statehouse trying to catch some rest on the couch, and the president called and said you have to get this thing lifted. To give the governor credit, he gave us the extra time where we were convinced we had hit most of the places, so the bottom line was, we got a very good search done that basically flushed him out of a certain area into the boat. And then when that gentleman in Watertown went out to have a smoke, he saw that something had gone amiss with his boat and called police in.

In fact, the suspect was apprehended only shortly after the governor lifted the voluntary "shelter in place" order, knowing he could only keep the metropolitan area on lockdown for so long and concluding that the suspect wouldn't be caught soon enough.

Beside the dearth of benefits derived by locking down metro Boston beyond those 20 crucial blocks (and perhaps a slightly wider area around them), consider the costs:

  • Tens of millions of dollars of economic costs associated with the shutdown as an extremely conservative estimate, born most heavily by poor and working-class people who needed their wages from that day and didn't get them.
  • Tens of thousands of kids missing a school day.
  • The cancelled trips, some of them important. The Friday evening weddings ruined. The inability to attend religious services. The discomfort associated with postponed medical procedures. The inability to make it to psychiatric appointments or Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.

Try as we might, the aggregate costs imposed on a city of millions by even a single day of disrupted work, play, and living are hard to calculate and impossible to fully fathom.

As Balko concluded, we enabled Dzhokhar to inflict far more damage on us that day than he possibly could have inflicted on his own, and "if we let Boston become our default response to these kinds of attacks, we essentially give future terrorists a blueprint for how to shut down a major American city. We’ll then have helped create a Tsarnaev legacy that easily transcends the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon, and one far more potent than the two suspects could ever have imagined."

That's why I wish that prior to this year's anniversary, Commissioner Davis had come to see, through reflection or the perspective afforded by time, that the decision to shut down Boston was clearly the wrong one, however right it seemed at the time. America's inability to reach anything like consensus on that point suggests this alarming possibility: that once a step is taken in the name of counterterrorism, Americans are rendered totally unable to declare that it was excessive, even in cases in which the benefits are shown to be nonexistent and the costs high.