The Marathon Bombings and the Lockdown of Boston: Was it really a Vindication of the Surveillance State?

 By Falguni A. Sheth and Robert E. Prasch

 

The sub-text of the official state view and media coverage coming out of Boston over the last week carried a crucial message to the American public: it was a vindication of the Counter-Terrorism Surveillance State and its massive expenditures and the associated erosion of American constitutional liberties.

To that end, the several days since the bombing of the Boston Marathon showcased a mesmerizing display of reality television mediated by the unquestioning officiousness of the fourth estate.   On vivid display was “proof through performance,” a validation, that the laws passed and massive expenditures incurred over the last decade were essential to the state’s  “protection of the public.”

Multiple banners flashed across the scene with short exciting spins about the status of the manhunt for the bombing suspects; they were accompanied by endlessly repeated images of Boston and Watertown police, SWAT teams and FBI officers, all carrying a dazzling array of complicated weapons, bordered by police cars.  There wasn’t a civilian in sight, since they all appeared to have accepted the ‘command’ (which was in fact a request) to stay inside. These images alternated with breathless images of reporters ‘at the scene,’ filibustering inanely, occasionally offering proud announcements about how they were asked to ‘move back’ as the focus of the police search for the suspects shifted. It was as if they were children proudly reporting how they were asked by their teacher to help clean the blackboards.

The past decade has seen Presidents, politicians — conservatives and liberals alike — champion pre-emptive policing laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act, FISA, NDAA 2012 and 2013, to TSA security practices and searches, to “See Something, Say Something” practices—all in service to fighting the War on Terror.  As a cable-news talking head cooed Friday morning: “There are cameras and social media everywhere. There is nowhere to hide!” That statement seemed indisputable: store cameras, street cameras, private cellphone cameras and videos could be integrated to give an astonishingly wide record of the tens of thousands of people who were at last Monday’s event.  Yet, the most important truth of that day seemed to be lost in the gush of self-congratulation: the explosion of the bombs confirmed that a massive extension of the surveillance-state did NOT protect people in Boston.

Remarkably, this message of the paramilitarized surveillance state was in no way challenged merely because it was inaccurate. By the time Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ended the “shelter in place” request, the second suspect had still not been found. Suddenly, the Boston public was supposed to believe that they were magically safer after the lock-down ended than before.   But lest one come to conclude that this suggested a failure of the militant and closely watchful surveillance state—Rachel Maddow, Erin Burnett, and other cable news heads happily rushed to its vindication—by triumphantly exclaiming the insightful fruits of the years-long “See Something, Say Something” campaign by the DHS.

The rough description that the media had in common was this: A guy walked out to his boat to smoke a cigarette, saw something moving, and lifted the tarp—only to find the injured suspect. At which point, he retreated and called the police!  Would the boat-owner have acted differently prior to the “See Something, Say Something” campaign?  Never mind.

Indeed, the vaunted magic of (decades-old) infrared technology, increased surveillance, and the absence of restraints on law enforcement, of this massive martial state could be all be justified through the lens of the state itself, a breathless and supine media, and an ostensibly cowering but now relieved public. Yeah! The War on Terror is so successful! See?

But the show did not end there.  As Erin Burnett crowed: “They took him alive! This proves that there is justice in America! Innocent til proven guilty.” Despite its nonsensical meaning, this oblique message was reiterated by the President, who cautioned us against a “rush to judgment”—certainly about groups of people. Apparently, “[t]hat’s why we have courts.”  Hmmm. That’s going to be news to some folks still languishing in Cuba.

Not to be outdone by an illusory call for order by a President who has supported multiple renewals of FISA and pressured the Senate into the approving an expansion of executive power to arrest and detain any suspected terrorist (US citizen or foreign national) anywhere in the world (in NDAA 2012 and 2013), Sen. Lindsay Graham insisted that we were seeing proof that the homeland was the battlefield. And indeed, it’s hard to disagree with him—even if one is critical.  Moreover, according to Graham and Sen. McCain, even a 19 year old naturalized citizen (vaguely fingered as Chechnyan and Muslim) CAN and should be treated as an enemy combatant.

What further cements this view of the Homeland as a Battlefield– is the public, collective, and casual insistence that a 19 year old should not be read his Miranda rights—because an asserted “public safety exception” can be invoked in view of the fact that other IED’s or pressure-cooker bombs might have been set.  With this, we are halfway to Alan Dershowitz’ favored fantasy: next, let’s torture him–because we ‘know’ a bomb might be set somewhere by him that threatens to hurt Americans. However—shockingly–even Dershowitz refuses to be fear-mongered, arguing instead that that the only logical outcome was a civilian trial, insisting that “It’s not even clear under the federal terrorism statute that this qualifies as an act of terrorism.”

Moreover, there was nearly no element of the recently reinforced surveillance state that contributed to the capture or killing these two suspects.  As an example, let’s assume every detail of the attack is the same except that it occurred in 1977 (to pick a random date prior to our ubiquitous Counter-Terrorism surveillance state; remember how we used to have “bad guys” before September 11?). If the “bad guys” had put together such a plan in 1977, would events have unfolded any differently?  Would there have been a lot of photography at the finish line of such a prominent public event?  Yes, although in the pre-digital age, it would have taken a little longer to gather and sort through the pictures.  Hence, this aspect of this past week’s outcome can’t be ascribed to the massive expenditures and “federalization” of “homeland security,” but rather to a change in consumer electronics.

Would the two brothers have been flushed out by the police response to a nearby and unrelated robbery that led to the tragic shooting of a MIT police officer, the carjacking and ensuing chase that ended with the shootout in Watertown?  It is hard to credit this sequence of events, which were initiated by a mere coincidence, to the success of the modern surveillance state.  Would the initial shootout in Watertown, the escape of one of the brothers, and the eventual spotting of blood on the side of a boat and the calling in of that observation have unfolded in more or less the same way in 1977?  Probably.

Where is the added value?  In what way have the massive expenditures, intrusive surveillance practices, and stripping away of our liberties been vindicated by the events of this past week?  In fact, no one can truthfully say “Aha!  This is where these new practices have made a difference!  Thank goodness George W. Bush and Barack Obama have so little regard for the American Constitution or everything would have really gone badly at that particular point in these events.”

What we witnessed was a tragic — but sadly – too familiar sequence of events.  In a nation of over 340 million, we have a few demented or damaged souls with real or imagined grievances that cause them to wish to harm people whom they do not know.  We also have good, brave, and competent local and state police forces that are able and willing to solve these crimes.  It was true back in 1977—and long before–and remains true today.

So what in fact did change? We now have a “War on Terror” that permeates every public news event and action. The immediate leap to the familiar “Terrorists In Our Midst” narrative is facilitated and amplified by a bovine mainstream media amped up by endless alerts issued by a Department of Homeland Security and two Presidential Administrations about insane foreigners here, there, and everywhere. In other words, what’s changed is the presence of a fear-mongering narrative of the War on Terror, along with the billions in expenditures that are used to justify it, that reframe a centuries old story about crime.

The events of the past week in Boston do not vindicate the rise of the Homeland Security bureaucracy and certainly do not vindicate the stripping of our liberties, the shutting down of a major city, or the instantiation of a police state. But they certainly affirm the future as it was perceived by George Orwell.

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This article has been republished on Salon.com.

 

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8 thoughts on “The Marathon Bombings and the Lockdown of Boston: Was it really a Vindication of the Surveillance State?

  1. I haven’t lived in Boston now for many years, but this episode vaguely reminds me of the time as a kid (1966?) when the city was virtually shut down over night after Albert DeSalvo (The Boston Strangler) escaped from the mental institution he was doing time in after being convicted of all those rape-murders. I live overseas now and have to say it was truly frightening and portentous to read how easily and quickly Bostonians acquiesced to what amounted to a period of martial law.

    In keeping with some terrific points you make here, I noticed that one of the first things the MSM trotted out was how the idea for pressure-cooker bombs was drawn from alleged al-Qaeda online magazine, Inspire. And surely it was no small “coincidence” that the Inspire issue in which the bomb-making details appeared also contained an interview with the droned American “terrorist” Anwar al-Awlaki. The implicit meme being: See, this (the marathon bombing) was why we had to kill al-Awlaki extrajudicially. Also an interesting “coincidence” that, as in the aftermath of 9/11, deadly poisons ended up being discovered in the mailrooms of congressman and the president.

    As you say, what comes out of this is a chance for surveillance state vindication, as well as a test run for how citizens will respond to being locked down. Given the spontaneous jubilant chorus of “USA! USA!” following the arrest of the suspect, the state can only be pleased by the silver lining playbook doings.

    One more ratchet click.

  2. This whole episode highlights how our reactions are so profoundly lacking a rational basis. We swarmed against these two individuals like an organism having a full out immune response against an alien infection (which was in reality a local but certainly not a systemic threat) while as a society we constantly ignore (daily gun homicides and suicides, war on drugs to name a couple) actual systemic threats. Bizarre. Impossible to understand.

  3. This is a great post and strikes so many important points. One thought – we don’t only have Orwell to help us process this. How about the manhunt in Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451? The way life is imitating art is quite sad.

    • Sure, that works too. Team America’s narratives are eerily relevant as well. And as Richard Kim in the Nation points out—we don’t know the names of any of the 14 who died in the West, Texas explosions. Perhaps we need to redirect the surveillance state towards the regulation of fertilizer plants. Where is OSHA in this surveillance framework?

  4. I really appreciate this article! Thanks for it!

    With the lockdown of Boston on Friday, all Boston Public Schools were shut down. It can be a lot of fun when school gets shut down due to a snow storm, because at least you can go out and build a snow fort, but here kids and families were supposed to just stay inside.

    Presumably officials were concerned about the danger kids would face in getting to school. But if that were the driving concern and if lockdown were the solution, why don’t officials shut down cities when young people have to face gang violence on an everyday basis just to get to school? Many young people face very real dangers of intimidation and assault walking to school, just because they have to traverse neighborhoods controlled by rival gangs.

    Instead of putting a whole city on lockdown, Chicago mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, is shutting down community schools. But this exacerbates the problems kids face in getting to school, partly because the distance across territory that is controlled by unfriendly gangs increases.

    The absurdity of shutting down a city when the problem is gang violence is fairly straightforward. Obviously different interventions that actually rebuild community infrastructure (rather than the prevailing approach, which is to destroy it) are needed. There must be a way to apply that same common sense to a situation like last Friday in Boston. But not if the logic of the security state wins.

    • As well, the logic of the security state prescribes the framework by which we view the whole event. And cable-news reporters rationalize the state’s increasing encroachment by cooing contentedly at the magic of surveillance. Talking air-heads.

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