For the last several days I have been bothered by what I saw transpire in Boston. Initially my concern was focused on plans to use the “public safety exception” to avoid Mirandizing Tsarnaev once he was apprehended. But there was something deeper that I could not initially put into words. It was a deep sense of discomfort at the image of police dressed like storm troopers going house to house, armed with machine guns doing sweeps of homes and neighborhoods to find the suspect who had eluded them. These warrantless searches of the home cut to the very core of the Fourth Amendment’s protection. The right to retreat into one’s home and be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion has always been accompanied by the constitutional requirement of a warrant based on probable cause. The home is our castle, it is the one place where our privacy rights are most cherished and exalted. Yet apparently all it takes is to label a suspect as a terrorist and those protections get thrown away.
I am well aware that the people in Boston last week were traumatized, that there was real fear. I am not trying to diminish that. Yet, I can’t help but think that some of that fear was the direct result of the government’s response to the shoot-out Thursday night and the imposition of a city wide “lock-down” (read: martial law?) on Friday. The entire city was put on a lock-down to conduct a manhunt for a 19 year old suspect. This wasn’t just a couple neighborhoods, it was the entire city. People were told to stay in their homes; taxis, trains, and buses were shut-down. It was followed by images (and videos) of police in armored vehicles with machine gun turrets on top,accompanied by officers in full battle gear (soldiers?) walking down the street with AR-15s in hand, entering into homes, dragging the owners outside with their hands above their head as if they were under arrest, conducting full searches without a warrant. A student of mine who is a Vet pointed out to me that “this is exactly what we did to clear out cities in Iraq.” It was a textbook military operation. Yet, this Op occurred on the streets of an American city. It was a paramilitary operation in which a massive violation of civil liberties occurred, orchestrated by the Federal Government, the State of Massachusetts, and the City of Boston. And we accepted it without question.
In what other place in the free world would an entire city be put in a lock-down to find one criminal? Nowhere has this ever happened. It did not happen in Atlanta in 1996, it did not happen in London in 2010. It does not happen in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. And there is a reason it hasn’t happened, because by doing so - we are basically letting the terrorists win by feeding off of the fear from the original event. You don’t need to hijack airplanes and crash them into skyscrapers — just put together a cheap “instructions-available-over-the-internet” explosive device, which you can purchase at your local Walmart — cause some mayhem (i.e., kill some people) and then shut down a city. What is the economic cost of that? Hundreds of millions of dollars? What a lesson this provides to other scumbags with a pipe-bomb.
Most important, I think, is the way the government’s actions served to enhance the psychological terror that many residents of Boston were feeling. They were already vulnerable, they were scared. It was real. But turning Bean-town into Baghdad multiplied that fear one-hundred fold. It was not only unprecedented, it was completely unnecessary. There could have been a middle ground. They could have requested people in parts of the city to stay off the streets. They could have gone house to house, asked permission to search yards, they could have asked questions of residents at the front door, and if they received a suspicious response, perhaps proceeded to do a search, but the video clips I have seen look like they should have been in a war zone in the middle east, not in urban residential communities in the United States.
And then what do we do at the end? What do we do when it is all over? We cheer them. We celebrate good police work catching the bad guy, while ignoring the means used to accomplish it. It is good versus evil, and the ends are all that matter. A massive violation of constitutional rights occurs, and we are complacent. Yes, they got the bad guy. But at what cost? What precedent does this set for our civil rights and liberties. I think we need to ask hard questions about what type of society we have, and why we are so willing to be complacent about our rights, and sacrifice them so easily.
We also need to ask hard questions to the government about how and why they chose to act the way they did. And we should not allow it to happen again in the face of fear. Writing about freedom of speech, Justice Louis Brandeis once said that “fear breeds repression; repression breeds hate” and “hate menaces stable government.” We simply cannot accept last week’s events as the new normal. We must not.