Heaven and Earth

There was a mad killer on the loose, and for upwards of a dozen hours on Friday, he was the only person in Boston allowed to walk the streets.

Yes, as law enforcement embarked upon a massive manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving assumed perpetrator of Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing (his brother and co-suspect, Tamerlan, had been fatally wounded in an overnight shootout with police), the Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, took the extraordinary step of asking all residents of Boston and surrounding communities of Watertown, Cambridge, Belmont, Newton and Brookline—roughly one million citizens in all—to lock themselves inside their homes until further notice.

The governor officially lifted the “shelter in place” request around dinnertime, and not more than an hour later, Tsarnaev was apprehended and the nightmare was over.

The relative swiftness of the whole operation saved us the trouble of having to ask a lot of deeply uncomfortable questions, both practical and philosophical.

Now that the drama appears to have drawn to a close, let us ask them anyway.

Getting right to the point:  Was the near-complete lockdown of six towns and cities a wise and reasonable decision?

As a consequence of keeping all residents indoors, authorities effected the shutdown of all businesses, all restaurants, all public transportation, all entertainment and all sporting events—a suspension of commerce expected to cost the region several hundred million dollars in lost revenue.

Sooner or later, we have to ask:  Was it worth all of that to hunt down and capture a single human being?

In general, under what conditions would such a move be unquestionably justified, and when would it not?  Where might we draw the line—or is this not something we could possibly know in advance?

In 2007, Mitt Romney expressed the view—not entirely unpopular then and at other times—that “it’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person”—and this was when the person was Osama bin Laden and the theater of war was outside the United States.  In certain contexts (if not that one), there must surely be wisdom in those words.

Sticking with the events of last week:  Suppose it took two days for authorities to locate and detain Tsarnaev, instead of one.  Would a lockdown have been as justified on Day Two as it apparently was on Day One?  How about on Day Three, or Day Seven?

Had Tsarnaev managed to tiptoe out of town, completely slipping through the FBI’s fingers sight unseen, how many billions of dollars of revenue would the Boston area have been allowed to lose—how long would a million residents be instructed to remain frozen in place—before the authorities decide that enough is enough?

The immediate justification for the “shelter in place” call—particularly in Watertown, where Tsarnaev was (correctly) believed to be—was that it would make it easier for law enforcement to methodically comb the neighborhood for clues and evidence—in other words, to do their jobs with minimal interference.  But was fully clearing the streets truly necessary to do this?  Could they not have completed this task in a relatively normally-functioning environment?  Isn’t it a bit worrying to think that they couldn’t?

It is true (so far as we know) that “shelter in place” ended before the capture of Tsarnaev was confirmed, suggesting that it was a strictly short-term measure (as it is designed to be) that was never going to last beyond Friday.  In fact, this only serves to beg further inquiries.

We were told, for instance, that the public transportation aspect of the shutdown—service was suspended on buses, subways, commuter rail and Amtrak—was to prevent Tsarnaev from spiriting away at high speed.  If we accept this premise, wouldn’t we then need to keep accepting it until the moment he was found, no matter how long it took?

I could go on, but if I haven’t made my point by now, the effort is probably futile.

As I am not the first (or last) person to observe, we Americans are extraordinarily lucky not to have to face these kinds of questions more frequently than we do.  New York Times columnist Ross Douthat rather eloquently tweeted, “If terror attacks were even slightly more common, [this] response would be [an] unsustainable folly,” adding that such an unprecedented event “is a luxury of domestic peace.”

So it is.  And with continued good fortune, the prospect of bringing life in the big city to a screeching halt will remain the exception, not the rule, in regards to how we respond to random acts of terror.

And yet I cannot help but wonder:  What will happen—and what should happen—the next time?

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