The following is a guest submission by Kevin Duewel, a student of George Washington University.
Civil libertarians need to avoid the knee jerk reaction to police action. They should see it as their obligation to make sure society does not forget individual liberty in times of crisis, but looking critically at police action is not the same thing as looking constructively at police action.
On the Boston lockdown, Independent Institute Research Fellow Anthony Gregory commented: “If two criminals can bring an entire city to its knees like this with the help of the state, then terrorism truly is a winning strategy,“ and that “if we cannot look at the police reaction last night very critically, there is really no hope for even moderate protection of our civil liberties today.”
I arrived in Boston early morning Friday, April 19 shortly before the government locked down the city, closing the public transit system and closing the doors of the bus station behind me. I went into Starbucks across from the Federal Reserve building and watched police in Homeland Security tactical vests patrol the streets. After a couple of hours, the building manager kicked us out of the Starbucks onto the street.
Downtown is relatively far from Cambridge, where the shooting had happened, and from Watertown, where the car chase had ended, but I was staying in Allston, the next town over from Cambridge. I opted to take a taxi from downtown to Allston. The shelter-in-place advisory was in effect the rest of the day, but the situation was hardly martial law. That afternoon I walked on the empty streets to get lunch near Boston University. I saw some university students returning from the liquor store with cases of beer. Later that evening I went to a friend’s apartment blocks away to watch the events unfold on CNN.
What was I supposed to think about the 9,000 police officers that descended upon the Boston suburbs or about the lockdown advisory? As somebody who feels very strongly about the militarization of the police and the impact of terrorism on public concern for civil liberty, I did not feel comfortable with the Humvees or the Homeland Security tactical vests. How Bostonians have responded, however, has been cause to reevaluate my initial reaction.
The next day I ran into one local on public transit who told me how he planned on going to the dentist during the manhunt because “they can’t take away my freedom,” but stayed in because staying off the streets meant police could more easily “get the shithead”. For the Bostonians I met, the police action was no more a cause for celebration than the bombing. What was a celebration was the capture of the suspect and the resumption of life as usual in Boston.
In most of Boston, the lockdown was in effect as an advisory. It was not martial law. In the heat of the manhunt, officers did require residents to stay out of the closed off areas in Watertown if they chose to leave their homes, but this was consistent with any police action where the search for an armed and dangerous suspect narrows to a confined area. For civil libertarians like Anthony Gregory to suggest that Boston was brought to its knees under the weight of the police state is just wrong. Bostonians wanted to catch the suspect, and they did so coming out strong.
If civil libertarians cannot respect police action, they will not only remain electorally irrelevant, they will fail at shifting the debate on civil liberty as well. It is too easy to fall into using contemporary events to validate your own views, but that kind of talk will unsettle anyone that is not already caught up in the fight for liberty. By responding to events like the Boston Bombing with criticism of police action, civil libertarians come across as out of touch. Keeping the events in context, rather than taking it as an opportunity to soapbox, will ultimately be a better strategy for communicating the need to safeguard civil liberty in times of crisis.