Boston Bombing: The Action Is in the Reaction

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The FBI account of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s apprehension by MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) police in the federal indictment against him was self-serving at best, and fanciful at worst:

On the evening of April 19, 2013, police investigation revealed that there was an individual in a covered boat located at 67 Franklin Street in Watertown. After a stand-off between the boat’s occupant and the police involving gunfire, the individual was removed from the boat and searched.

While it was technically true that Tsarnaev’s apprehension “involved” gunfire, Tsarnaev was not among those who had fired any of the guns that night. The FBI later admitted that Tsarnaev had been unarmed in the boat. All of the dozens – possibly hundreds – of rounds fired off in the moments before the arrest were by arresting officers or their back-up units, not by Tsarnaev. After that cowboy-like melee, the wounded Tsarnaev was arrested.

The FBI account implied a back-and-forth gun battle that ended in Tsarnaev’s surrender. But the reality was that trigger-happy police risked killing an unarmed suspect who already had suffered serious wounds. In essence, it’s only by sheer luck – and poor marksmanship – that Tsarnaev will live to stand trial for his alleged crimes. Interestingly, officials are also investigating whether MBTA Police Officer Richard Donahue was wounded by friendly fire in the shoot-out the night before that resulted in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar’s older brother.

Moreover, it wasn’t so much a “police investigation” that revealed Tsarnaev to law enforcement as it was a tip from a Watertown resident after the governor’s curfew had been lifted. Franklin Street resident David Henneberry left his house to inspect his boat after police lifted the Watertown curfew. There Henneberry found Tsarnaev in the boat, bleeding, and called the police. Henneberry’s house was a couple of blocks outside of the official search zone, where police were conducting house-to-house searches. In essence, the dragnet-style search ordered by politicians in charge of the police response had done nothing to apprehend the suspect. Nor did the massive use of military ordnance on display on the streets of Boston-area towns speed the apprehension of the suspects. In fact, the “stay-in-place” curfew – officially voluntary – likely delayed apprehension of the 19-year-old Tsarnaev. The political order to vacate the streets had the practical effect of taking a million pairs of eyes off the getaway scene for the duration of the curfew.

Even the criminal charge against Tsarnaev was a result of a legislative exaggeration. The official federal indictment charged Tsarnaev and his brother – who had been killed in a shootout with police the previous night – with using a “weapon of mass destruction.” The term “weapon of mass destruction” (WMD) was once a term describing only chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, but in 1994, federal law expanded the definition to include any “destructive device” (bomb) or big-bore “projectile” of more than .50 caliber. By the 1994 legal standard, even an air-powered potato gun can legally qualify as a WMD.

Ironically, the Tsarnaev brothers – if guilty of the Boston Marathon bombings – will have killed fewer people than many other ordinary serial killers. The death toll in the whole Boston area spree was five people (including the elder Tsarnaev brother), whereas – for example – in October 2002, Washington, D.C., snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 people. By way of contrast, officials in Washington, D.C., did not shut down much of the metropolitan area – as Massachusetts officials did – in order to look for the suspects. Nor did Washington politicians call out the National Guard or employ massive military equipment in order to deal with what was in reality a greater threat to public safety. The divergence between the reactions to threats in public safety today and how officials reacted just a few years ago is telling.

Terrorism: Fear Is Greater Than the Actual Threat

As radical leftist organizer Saul Alinsky once pronounced in his book Rules for Radicals, with political force “the action is in the reaction,” meaning that sometimes it’s more effective to take advantage of a provocation – or even create one – in order to achieve political goals. Alinsky also noted that in politics “the threat itself is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Both such “rules for radicals” apply to the terrorism problem, in that Americans will not give up their cherished freedoms absent a perceived threat. Thus, liberty-hating radicals have come out of the woodwork in the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath, proposing “cures” for the terrorist threat that involve vastly expanded government intelligence and massive surveillance of Americans.

Those calls for more government surveillance of Americans have found a voice in the mayor of New York City. “We live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days,” Michael Bloomberg said in an April press conference. “And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.” Mayor Bloomberg went on to conclude: “Look, we live in a very dangerous world. We know there are people who want to take away our freedoms. New Yorkers probably know that as much if not more than anybody else after the terrible tragedy of 9/11.”

In those few sentences, Bloomberg outlined the two false assumptions in virtually every call for more surveillance of Americans: 1. This point in history with the emergence of bombers is new and more scary than in the past and 2. Trading away freedoms for security will lead to more security.

Even before Dhzokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest, slate.com’s technology columnist Farhad Manjoo had joined the surveillance cheerleading squad in his April 19 column for the online magazine: “Cities under the threat of terrorist attack should install networks of cameras to monitor everything that happens at vulnerable urban installations. Yes, you don’t like to be watched. Neither do I. But of all the measures we might consider to improve security in an age of terrorism, installing surveillance cameras everywhere may be the best choice. They’re cheap, less intrusive than many physical security systems, and – as will hopefully be the case with the Boston bombing – they can be extremely effective at solving crimes.”

Manjoo frets about this being an age of terrorism, even though America has been in the era of terrorism at least since the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Riot, when an anarchist bomb-thrower tossed a handmade dynamite bomb into a crowd of police trying to break up an anarchist demonstration. Several police were killed in the blast, and others were killed by police friendly fire in the ensuing melee. The Haymarket Riot later became a global communist holiday after the Second International in Paris commemorated the riots in 1889. Although Chicago police were unable to find the Haymarket bomb-thrower, they did find the bomb factory and many of the bomb-thrower’s confederates.

Law-enforcement agencies had better luck tracking down a far larger wave of bombings from 1917-20 in the wake of the anarchist/Bolshevik revolutions in Europe. The United States suffered some 125 bombing attempts across the country. In April 1919, the bombers sent 36 mail bombs of dynamite to congressmen, leading businessmen, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, governors, leading newspapers, and U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. On June 2 of the same year, the anarchists tried again, setting off larger bombs in eight different cities and again targeting leading politicians and businessmen, including Attorney General Palmer. On September 1, 1920, a horse-drawn cart full of 500 pounds of dynamite – surrounded by metal shrapnel – exploded on Wall Street, killing 38 people.

The era was known as the “Red Scare” despite the fact that the threat was real, and Attorney General Palmer called for the deportation of the anarchists (mostly Italian followers of Luigi Galleani) and Bolsheviks (mostly Russian) from the country as a cure for the chaos:

I have been asked, for instance, to what extent deportation will check radicalism in this country. Why not ask what will become of the United States Government if these alien radicals are permitted to carry out the principles of the Communist Party as embodied in its so-called laws, aims and regulations? There wouldn’t be any such thing left. In place of the United States Government we should have the horror and terrorism of bolsheviki tyranny such as is destroying Russia now.

Reaction to the “Red Scare” of 1919-20 involved the same type of apocalyptic rhetoric as that employed against the threat of Islamic extremism today. And it involved some repression of civil liberties: Aliens were deported without formal due process and the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (a forerunner of the FBI) engaged in warrantless searches and seizures. But the reaction to more than one hundred bombings was otherwise far more muted than the response to the Boston Marathon bombings: The federal government and local police did not call out the National Guard and deploy military ordnance on the streets of America, nor did they shut down whole cities or collude with local officials to issue curfew restrictions. Perhaps most importantly, the popular reaction against the Palmer raids strengthened the idea that civil liberties needed to be protected.

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