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Did the Authorities' Lockdown of Boston Give Us a Taste of the Police State Culture to Come?

The American public at large is immersed in fear and cruelty, and seemingly willing to surrender its rights at the first whiff of danger.
 
 
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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[i]

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;”[ii] 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.[iii]

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.”[iv]  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."[v]

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?”[vi] 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.