Boston’s Forgotten Lockdown
It wasn’t long after Joe Biden’s apparent victory in the 2020 presidential election that something which the American public should have expected occurred: the ascendance of a New Expert. And it wasn’t long after Dr. Michael Osterholm, the President-elect’s new coronavirus adviser, appeared in the media that he began touting prescriptions for a new, longer lockdown period—a national shutdown of some four to six weeks.
Needless to say, the memory of being told that it would take just “two weeks to flatten the curve” earlier this year lingers in the minds of more than a few concerned citizens. Yet Osterholm seems to have anticipated questions about the efficacy of the previous effort: “The problem with the March-to-May lockdown was that it was not uniformly stringent across the country … To be effective a lockdown has to be as comprehensive and strict as possible.”
The costs of the earlier lockdown are still being tallied, but early indications are horrifying. In addition to those which can be seen and are still being felt are many others only now being revealed: a price being paid in lost mental and physical health, lost education (at all levels), and in impacts upon civil and domestic life. In the eyes of government bureaucrats, evidently, no policy is so bad that it can’t be tinkered with and attempted again.
But lockdowns have been tried before, albeit with a vastly different outcome.
On Monday, April 15th 2013, near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon, two bombs built from pressure cookers detonated several seconds apart. Gut-wrenching scenes of the carnage, in which three people were killed and 264 wounded, filled the airwaves. The city was flooded with condolences from the rest of the United States and the entire world.
Within several days images of the alleged perpetrators were released. Shortly thereafter, between April 18th and early April 19th, 2013, a maelstrom of violence erupted across a handful of Boston suburbs. Killings, carjackings, and the culmination—a firefight, including pipe bombs thrown like grenades—exploded in the Boston suburb of Watertown, MA. When one of the terrorists was killed, his brother, wounded, disappeared on foot into the streets of Watertown.
A massive manhunt ensued, including deployment of the Massachusetts State Police and National Guard. At approximately 1:57 a.m., residents of Watertown were advised to stay inside and lock their doors until further notice. By 5:45 a.m., the lockdown was extended to surrounding towns and neighborhoods, including Waltham, Cambridge, Brookline, Newton, and Allston-Brighton. And at 8 a.m. on Friday, April 19th, 2013, the entire city of Boston, Massachusetts was put under lockdown by Governor Deval Patrick: public transportation suspended, private taxis immobilized, and Amtrak service entering and leaving the city cancelled. Schools and universities closed, as did private businesses and other facilities.
Although fear of the missing perpetrator (who was assumed to be in possession of numerous weapons) was widespread, the forced cessation of social and economic life nevertheless shocked many.
Reuters, less than three hours after the government shutdown of Boston began, reported that
another cost was added to the human and emotional toll [of the marathon bombing]: lost business … From the postponed baseball game at the Red Sox’ beloved Fenway Park to canceled classes at Harvard University to empty cubicles at leading fund management firms, the New England city is likely to suffer hundreds of millions of dollars [in] economic losses … A slew of concerts and the Bruins hockey game were postponed, while restaurants and shops were shuttered. Still, at least a few businesses were open, including Yummy House Chinese Restaurant on Beacon Street in Brookline. In Cambridge, near the apartment of the Tsarnaev brothers, Troy & Anthony’s Barbershop was packed—in defiance of a police request for all businesses to close.
A Bloomberg staff writer tweeted: “If Tsarnaev’s location isn’t confirmed by sundown, does the lockdown continue through Friday night? Over the weekend? It’s unclear.” Echoing those sentiments, a Northeastern University professor was quoted as saying, “My fear is that we don’t find him today. We can’t go on living in lockdown indefinitely. How can you find one person in a whole city?”
As stunned as everyone else, photographers documented the unprecedented lifelessness of various Boston neighborhoods that Friday. Only several hours into the lockdown, articles with titles like “How much will the Boston lockdown cost?” began to appear.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured early that Friday evening, hiding in a boat in a Watertown backyard. But the lockdowns had ended several hours before his capture.
Why did Boston and Massachusetts public officials lift them before the second suspect, who was presumably armed with automatic weapons and field expedient explosives, was found? The 130-page “After Action Report for the Response to the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings” compiled by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the City of Boston, and both the Massachusetts National Guard and State Police, explains the basis for the decision to lift the restrictions succinctly:
As the house-to-house search began to near its conclusion, law enforcement officials became increasingly concerned that the suspect had escaped the area. If the suspect were no longer in the area, the shelter-in-place request would put unnecessary burdens on residents and businesses in the affected communities. Given these circumstances, the UC decided to lift the shelter-in-place request and resume MBTA transit service. The Governor announced these decisions at a 6:03 p.m. press conference, thanked the public for their cooperation, and cautioned them to remain vigilant, asking individuals to report any suspicious activity to law enforcement. [Emphasis added]
Yes: in April of 2013, a single day of mandated closures aroused deep concern among political officials as to the health and viability of citizens and businesses.
In the months following that day, editorials weighed in: not only on the militaristic response to a single at-large terrorist, but the overall impact of indiscriminate, government-imposed shutdowns. Journalist Radley Balko warned that:
[i]f we don’t force a discussion about the tactics used in the aftermath of the Boston bombing, we risk allowing those tactics to become the norm … In shutting down Boston … we let the bombers inflict hundreds of millions of dollars more in damage than they possibly could have inflicted on their own[.]
The media and power elite, meanwhile, embarked upon an appeasement campaign. Time magazine, ignoring the tremendous gravitas that government suasion has in the minds of most citizens, took pains to describe the shelter-in-place as a “request,” praising the Boston lockdown as one of several “creative methods of keeping law and order.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, allegedly an advocate for small business and commercial interests, sheepishly concluded that “[a] ‘closed’ sign is never a good sign for business, but there are times when it’s the right call for everyone.”
The director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University at that time declared that “[i]n terms of both scale and scope, the shelter-in-place that was enforced was extraordinary, perhaps even unprecedented, but so too were the circumstances.”
But were they? When, over seven months in 2002, a rogue sniper team killed ten and wounded three in Washington, DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland, there were no lockdowns. Neither were there during any of a tragically long list of terrifying rampage killings throughout history. And between 1970 and 1975 (in particular, during 1971 in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco), scores of bombings by the Weathermen evoked no such response. They didn’t during crime sprees decades previously, either.
Powers which accrue to or are seized by states during crises rarely diminish. Instead, they tend to become part of an ever-expanding policy armamentarium—a phenomenon which occurs frequently enough that it has its own name: the “ratchet effect.” But not only do newly assumed powers become permanent fixtures on the authoritative landscape, they sometimes cross-pollinate: cameras installed for security purposes can also be used to record license plates to impose parking fines. Eminent domain, despite explicit restrictions at the federal and state levels, has gone from a tool for acquiring property for public use to an instrument through which influential local pols team up with private developers. The list goes on. Who knows where, or toward what ends, state governors or Federal officials may potentially extend lockdown schemes?
Public policy choices are the end result of many factors: historical precedent, predominant theories, and anticipated public reaction. Brief lockdowns in Boston with a terrorist on the loose surely played some role, even if tangential, in decisions made during the early spread of COVID-19 within the United States. A mere seven years ago there was apprehension among lawmakers facing the prospect of treating U.S. citizens like so many goldfish in small plastic bags. That reluctance ended with an uncommonly heroic political decision.
Although the prevailing winds are against doing so, Americans must return to a time—a mindset, an attitude, an indomitable spirit—where concern about civil rights and the suppression of commercial and social life rank close, if not equal, to those of safety and security. Lockdowns, whether under the threat of terror, disease, or any other calamity, are an exceedingly dangerous policy contrivance. Their normalization threatens personal liberty and the health of society as a whole more than irregular combatants or microbes ever could.
Peter C. Earle is an economist at the American Institute for Economic Research.