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Lockdown, USA: Lessons From the Boston Marathon Manhunt

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Posted on May 9, 2013
Brian Birke (CC BY 2.0)

A deserted Federal Street in Boston on April 19, the day of the manhunt for marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

A version of this piece first appeared at Truthout.

A tragedy of errors: nobody knows any more who is who. The smoke of the explosions forms part of the much larger curtain of smoke that prevents all of us from seeing clearly. From revenge to revenge, terrorism obliges us to walk to our graves. I saw a photo, recently published, of graffiti on a wall in NYC: ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’.
—Eduardo Galeano

The American public rightfully expressed a collective sigh of relief and a demonstration of prodigious gratitude towards law enforcement authorities when the unprecedented manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers came to an end. The trauma and anxiety felt by the people of Boston and to some degree by the larger society over the gratuitously bloody and morally degenerate attacks on civilians was no doubt heightened given the legacy of 9/11.  Since the tragic events of that historical moment, the nation has been subjected to “a media spectacle of fear and unreason delivered via TV, news sites and other social media;”  it has also been engulfed in a nationwide hysteria about Muslims. Moreover, the American public has been schizophrenically immersed within a culture of fear and cruelty punctuated by a law-and-order driven promise for personal safety, certainty, and collective protection that amounted to a Faustian bargain with the devil, one in which Americans traded constitutional rights and numerous civil liberties for the ever expanding presence of a militarized security and surveillance state run by a government that has little regard for human rights or the principles of justice and democracy. 

The collective expressions of relief, compassion, and adulation were reasonable and appropriate once the threat from the Boston marathon bombers had ended. But such feelings are short-lived in a country that infamously is losing its capacity to question itself, embracing instead a mode of historical amnesia “in which forgetting has become more important than learning.”  What is needed in the aftermath of this tragedy is a critical and thoughtful analysis about what the significance of locking down an entire city meant not simply for the present or the future of urban living, but for democracy itself. Locking down Boston was generally left unquestioned by the mainstream media, though a number of progressive and left intellectuals raised serious questions about the use and implications of the tactic, particularly the abridging civil liberties, squelching dissent, and legitimating the spectacle of the war machine. For example, Michael Schwalbe argues that he was troubled by what lockdown foreshadows with its connotation of authoritarian control, its expanding use, and its ongoing normalization in American society. He writes:

When I hear that authorities have locked down a school, a workplace, a transit system, a cell phone network, or a city, the subtext seems unmistakable: We are now in control.  Listen carefully and do as you are told.  What I hear is the warden saying that communication will flow in one direction only, and that silence and obedience are the only options.

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Other critics suggested the lockdown represented a massive overreaction that was symptomatic of a larger social crisis. Steven Rosenfeld argued that “beyond lingering questions of whether the government went too far by shutting down an entire city and whether that might encourage future terrorism, a deeper and darker question remains: why is America’s obsession with evil so selective?”  This was an important point and was largely ignored by most commentators on the tragedy. Implicit in Rosenfeld’s question is why the notion of security and safety are limited to personal security and the fear of attacks by terrorists rather than the rise of a gun culture, the shredding of the safety net for millions of Americans, the imprisonment of one out of every 100 Americans, or the transformation of public schools into adjuncts of the punishing and surveillance state. 

Lockdown as a policy and mode of control misrepresents the notion of security by reducing it to personal safety and thereby mobilizing fears that demand trading civil liberties for increased militarized security. The lockdown that took place in Boston serves as a reminder of how narrow the notion of security has become in that it is almost entirely associated with personal safety but never with the insecurities that derive from poverty, a lack of social provisions, and the incarceration binge. Most importantly, it now serves as a metaphor for how we address problems facing a range of institutions including immigration detention centers, schools, hospitals, public housing, and prisons. Lockdown is the new common sense of a militarized society, the zone of unchecked surveillance, policing, and state brutality. Some have argued that because the people of Boston were only advised to stay inside while police in paramilitary formation flooded the city, it is not fair to suggest there was a lockdown. The real concern here should focus on what it means when the national security state is out in full force in a particular city and no longer finds it necessary for them to actually impose martial law. Rather than give orders, all that is necessary is for the state to give advice, and thus be able to mimic a military occupation without the necessity of even bothering with consent. 

Security in this instance is reduced to issues of law and order and mirrors a Hobbesian free-for-all, a world that “reveres competitiveness and celebrates unrestrained individual responsibility, with an antipathy to anything collective that might impede market forces”—a world in which the Darwinian survival of the fittest ethos rules and the only values that matter are exchange values.  In this panopticon-like social order, there is little understanding of society as a public good, of the importance of providing public necessities such as decent housing, job programs for the unemployed, housing for the poor and homeless, health care for everyone, and universal education for young people. 

In a society where critical analysis and explanation of violent attacks of this nature are dismissed as terrorist sympathizing, there is a stultifying logic that assumes that contextualizing an event is tantamount to justifying it. This crippling impediment to public dialogue may be why the militarized response to the Boston marathon bombings, infused with the fantasy of the Homeland as a battlefield and the necessity of the paramilitarized surveillance state, was for the most part given a pass in mainstream media. Of course, there is more at stake here than misplaced priorities and the dark cloud of historical amnesia and anti-intellectualism, there is also the drift of American society into a form of soft authoritarianism in which boots on the ground and the securitization of everyday life now serve either as a source of pride, entertainment, or for many disposable groups, a source of fear.


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