Our Fearful Response to Boston

Part 2: Sunday I wrote why I thought it was important to break down some of the issues that are absent from the discourse, including why platitudes, condemnations, and consolations should be absent without condemning the author. For more on that, please click over to that post to read the introduction (and the mythologies in the Boston media coverage).

Following the events Thursday night, for nearly 30 hours Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the most important 19-year-old man in America since Michael Phelps won six gold medals in Athens, with people glued to their TVs then (before the advent of Twitter) and their computers and TVs now. I am typically skeptical of the “copycat” argument when the media discusses school shooters, but I think the attention given to this manhunt hasn’t been seen since OJ. We don’t know what kind of impact this particular iteration of the media-going-overboard is going to have on future acts of violence.

As someone who has an affinity for Boston, which I have chosen to minimize in this post because when we describe those things it only serves to feed in to expectation that we need to establish credibility as a critic, I also had the choice to tune out during the day on Friday. It felt completely unnecessary—well, after tweeting a quip about their literal Caucasian background when I woke up and learned about the overnight events before even getting out of bed—to remain transfixed by the internet/cable news cycle. Being indirectly impacted, trusting that friends in the area were safe because of the already problematic lockdown, meant that I had both the luxury, and in some ways maybe an obligation to wait. It made more sense to wait until the evening to get caught up, avoiding speculation and ignoring the news coverage until then.

Rather than stop everything I was doing during the day to follow the manhunt, I was able to turn on the TV at 7:30 and learn that they had the suspect trapped in a boat. Within 30 minutes I was caught up and the suspect was in custody on his way to the hospital for medical treatment (and aggressive interrogation). So as I caught up, and caught snippets if I did click over to Twitter, something that left me troubled was the reported voluntary compliance with martial law (not “marshall,” something Maggie pointed out after seeing quite a few folks ignorant of the difference in the Twittersphere) in a major metropolitan area. By shutting down the entire metro area, even under the guise of citizens voluntarily throwing open their doors to law enforcement, a strange precedent has been set in regard to the use of force and the expansion of police powers. I’m not an Infowars conspiracy theorist, I just find it troubling. My faith in the government to act responsibly has not yet been shaken, despite the repeated abuses of power that we’ve seen in just the last twelve years. Maybe I’m naïve?

But the good people of Watertown had that same faith: there may have been a belief that their search scope will be limited (will they ignore the pound of cocaine on the table?) or the attitude that it’s their civic duty to ensure that their household is safe and can be checked off the list. But what of those who refuse? Are they forced to comply? Is a search warrant at least attained? Do they get ostracized in their community for exercising their rights and potentially jeopardizing the safety of their neighbors? If they refused, are they viewed as collaborators or supporters of the suspects and their motivations? What about homes that were not occupied, did the police just bust in with out warrants to confirm that the suspect wasn’t holding anyone hostage or hiding in the basement? Do they put your dog down if it reacts negatively to the armed masked men storming in to your home?

Some of these questions appear answered through this video shared by Anonymous:

Now granted it’s across the street and amateur video, but that doesn’t exactly look voluntary—with a SWAT team on your porch and firearms in your face, it probably felt pretty coercive. It appears that you get treated as if there’s something to hide if the police judge you didn’t answer the door quickly enough. There’s an embedded level of fear, even with the voluntary compliance. And it should be mentioned, there’s probably a  great deal of fear permeating the police who are responsible for the manhunt. An officer is already killed and another wounded. The bombings on Monday are fresh in everyone’s mind. And they have no idea if the Tsarnaev is armed with explosives, waiting to take more officers out. Even trained officers with years of experience have to have felt some level of fear, every time they approached a door. After each house is successfully cleared, that only means they’re getting closer to a potential confrontation, no doubt heightening the fear or anxiety.

And this fear felt by the people in Watertown—officers and citizens alike—is important. Whether that was the intent of the suspects or not, their acts function as terrorism, prior to the political label being applied through our legal process, two distinct processes, as noted by Michael Eric Dyson on Melissa Harris Perry Sunday morning. This fear operates in conjunction with support for law enforcement (fear of being associated with “terrorists,” fear of the police response for non-compliance, fear of leaving your own home because you may interact with the suspects or police in a heightened state) and stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric that has permeated the news cycle immediately after the explosions on Monday.

Statements Monday and Tuesday in support of the people of Boston and those affected, such as vowing to run the marathon the following year or to walk the final five miles from BC to Copley, are remarkable in light of the fear that was evident in the photos of empty streets, the police presence, and the visible relief and celebration on Friday night when the suspect was taken in to custody. Clearly, by Friday morning as people learned of Thursday night’s events, there was fear, despite the well-intended statements of community courage not three days before. The defiance of the early week was not about showing no fear, but instead about putting that fear to work: Organizing the community to show the bombers that Boston will not be deterred. In fact, whether they see it that way or not, Boston was deterred, and fear was the reason. And now since Tsarnaev’s arrest, the fear of Friday stands in contrast with the recent news coverage of Boston getting back to “normal,” as if the anxiety of further violence is somehow completely behind them now.

Though we still don’t know the motives for acting, if it did include political terrorism, then it stands to reason that bringing the city to a halt and inducing a week of fear was a bonus they may not have anticipated. However, their behavior on Thursday night in to Friday seems so haphazard and poorly (if at all) planned, that it is reasonable to believe that they did not think that far ahead. Hell, the elder Tsarnaev was dead before the lockdown. And carjacking and ATM withdrawals are really easy ways to draw police attention to yourselves, and anyone who watches a season of 24 could have probably put that together. But it does seem like a reasonable panicky reaction from two people who just saw their faces plastered across all media outlets.

Taking a step back from the heightened fear and anxiety of the past week, it’s also important to think about some of the other impacts that the manhunt had. Just like the poor and working class were largely ignored in the election discourse, it seems that they were again not a consideration, because the perception of public safety is paramount. This 19-year-old was so feared that communities beyond the cordoned off area were also on lockdown, though the police were less of a presence due to their focus on Watertown. Unfortunately, shutting down the metro area disproportionately impacts the poor and working class. Hourly workers counting on the 60 dollars for food or rent may have concerns about safety that are competing with the need for shelter and food. These folks are unfortunately usually in the position of having to weigh needs against each other, with those in the lowest economic class often living in the most dangerous neighborhoods, while those of us more privileged do not need to treat our needs as trade offs.

People like me could take the vacation day or just work from home. I wouldn’t have to think about if its safe to go to work because I need money, or prioritize my safety over earning the money to pay rent (or feed my children, if I was a parent). That lost income isn’t coming back to them in some class action lawsuit against the suspect. The knee-jerk reaction to close Quincy, Brookline, or South Boston to commerce and free movement is extremely problematic. I can understand closing the T to limit the suspects mobility. But by suspending taxi service outside the cordon and closing the streets or businesses, when there was no indication of additional people involved, shutting the city down as a precaution disproportionately impacts people who are already forced to balance their needs on a daily basis.

Here’s something else about the underclass that doesn’t get mentioned: Federal (and possibly other) prisons went into lockdown on Monday after the bombings to prevent violence against those perceived to potentially be involved in the bombing, or ethnically related to stereotypes of terrorists. The people who are subjected to the strictest social control in our country end up even more restricted, because that initial level of control is not sufficient to protect the safety of every person within the prison. The fear that one’s loved ones may have been injured or are in danger can be enough to drive even free people to commit tremendous acts of violence. I can’t imagine the additional pressure when that love is the one constant, sustaining hope in a future after prison or a reality outside the walls of control, and there’s nothing you can do about it or know about their well being. That is no doubt a catalyst that would otherwise lead to violence against others, if not for the lockdown. I’m not sure what it says about our society, if the most restrictive environment, intended to keep free society safe, is not restrictive enough, to keep those within the prison safe, in the wake of tragedy.

And finally, I mentioned the vigilantism in my previous post on Boston, but this is a good follow-up to the suspicions offered by Redditors, many of whom probably haven’t been to the Boston Marathon pre-race. Guess what? They sell black backpacks at the marathon. I bought one in 2008. Lots of people have them! I had it with me in Boston in 2009 because, like others, I returned to give it another shot. It’s hardly an identifying characteristic, and maybe why the bombers chose a black backpack in the first place. But an athletic looking dude with a black backpack is probably about 60% of the people running and milling around the finish line.

So now, about one week later, I’ve also reflected on my general disinterest in the events in Boston, manifested in a resistance to the 24 hour news cycle, while maintaining a general knowledge about the events. It forced me to consider if focusing on my day-to-day existence makes me a “bad” person, who is not patriotic or American enough to comment on the events.

I still have a life and work and responsibilities, so I chose to disengage from the media circus. It’s funny to know that CNN sucks but it doesn’t make me a better person to feed in to it.

Instead, I took care of my home and spent time with family, and put my effort at work towards the difficult challenges related to public safety in my job. From the outside it may look like callous indifference to the events in Boston. But from where I sit, where geographical and financial limits constrain my ability to make any difference, I choose to be active in my spheres of influence, pushing forward with meaningful strategies to help the college students on my campus. Rather than spend too much time, at least during the week, thinking about how I can’t do anything about the Boston situation, I’ve directed my energy in to something I can do to improve the community I live in.


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