Boston in Retrospect: Was A Complete Shutdown Necessary?
Both the people of Boston and the police handled the bombing of the marathon well. Transit was another matter, although what happened was not the T’s fault. The state government ordered the entire Boston transit system – – trains, trolleys, buses, all of it – – to shut down. This order was not given before the bombing (if some evidence of the plot had been uncovered), when it might have made some sense, but after it. Amtrak even shut down passenger rail service to the city!
All this happened not because al Qaeda was thought to have a suitcase nuke in the city, but because of one 19-year old kid with a gun – - who turned out to be wounded and hors de combat. Boston contains more than one teenager with a gun and evil intent every day. But the magic word “terrorism” was uttered, so everyone was essentially told by their brave government to go hide under the bed.
This response was wrong on two levels. First, it was bad transit policy. Transit should make every effort to keep operating in times of emergency. That may be when people need it most. For a variety of possible reasons, cars may be unsafe, unavailable or inoperable. Some semblance of normal life can nonetheless be preserved if people can take transit. And no matter what the situation, some people will need to go someplace, even if only out of the city (Amtrak take note).
The bad transit policy ordered by the state government points to the second mistake, bad security policy. In the face of terrorism, one thing government should not do is serve as the terrorists’ megaphone. That is what they want. Publicity is at least half of the game for them, and over-reaction gives them more publicity than they could ever buy. Arguably, the two Chechens’ (Russia could have told us all about Chechens, had we bothered to ask (or to listen since the Russians did contact the FBI)); just why are there Chechens in America, anyway?) biggest success was not the bombing itself but shutting down the city of Boston for a whole day. That success came wholly from government over-reaction.
Yes, the injuries and loss of life in Boston were tragic. But West, Texas lost more dead when the fertilizer plant blew up. The over-reaction in Boston came not from the event itself, but from one word, “terrorism.” Ironically, we often allow terrorism to terrify us, which is exactly what the terrorist want and what terror-wise governments should refuse to permit.
In his weekly address, President Obama said, “Americans refuse to be terrorized. Ultimately, that’s what we’ll remember from this week.” That was true of the police and the public, but not the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It lost its cool, and in the process made a very bad decision about public transit.