Holding Boston hostage

April 19, 2013


Boston was in lockdown Friday. The machinery of a major metropolitan area in the richest nation on earth had come to a grinding halt. We know why this is happened – a terrorist manhunt – but how, exactly, does a modern bustling city come to a full stop?

In fact, much of ordinary life continues. Water still comes from the taps for a shower; you can telephone your family and friends; you can even work on your computer or read quietly in the backyard. But one key aspect of city life stopped: the movement of people. What matters most in a lockdown of this scale is the ability to halt the circulation of people.

Whether or not a lockdown works often depends on who – the citizens or the terrorist suspect – can stay still the longest.

The prevailing idea of the lockdown is “shelter in place” – an instruction to remain precisely where you are. The phrase came into general use in the 1970s, in response to planning for population protection in the event of nuclear attack – often with a specific concern that a chemical, biological or nuclear device might have contaminated an area.

Terrorism is our new nuclear threat and the phrase has recently been applied in planning scenarios similar to the reality that unfolded in Boston Friday. As with the operation of public transportation on a normal day, such directives require the cooperation and goodwill of the population at large.

A lockdown is a massive undertaking – but easy enough to initiate when it involves a centralized authority. Though Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority is the country’s fifth largest mass transit system, serving a population of nearly 5,000,000 people across more than 175 municipalities, it is overseen by a small board answerable directly to the governor. If the governor says “stop,” then the system stops – leaving nearly one-third of the city’s labor force with no means of getting to or from work.

The simple notice appeared on the MBTA website on Friday, “ALL Service on ALL Modes Currently SUSPENDED,” demonstrating the central authority’s ability to halt the movement of trolleys, buses, subways and elevated trains and commuter trains over an area of more than 3,000 square miles.

The MBTA shutdown was necessary because there are so many points of entry and because, under normal circumstances, the security of commuters relies almost entirely on trust. At Logan Airport, however, with only a few points of entry and exit and a trained security staff in place, flights continued to operate.

Similarly, large institutions can be shut down with a single command – though making sure doors are locked and no one is inside takes the coordinated effort of hundreds, if not thousands, of staff members. Boston public schools as well as its colleges and universities were closed.

Municipalities can also be closed down relatively easily: A mayor or town manager issues the directive and doors shut, garbage trucks pull over, inspectors go home. Officials have also asked businesses to close and many, if not most, comply. Some small shops, especially convenience stores, may remain open. No tickets are issued if they do.

But businesses that rely on large groups of people – such as the Faneuil Hall marketplace – are less likely to remain open. They are motivated as much by legal concerns as by a sense of civic duty.

In an open society such as our own, the most difficult part of the lockdown is gaining the cooperation of citizens. All the authorities can do is to ask. Without diverting police to guard road checks, no one can stop you from driving. No one can stop tourists, who may have been planning this trip for months, from walking to see the sights.

It is no small credit to the people of metropolitan Boston that the vast majority had, in fact, hunkered down in their homes or in their offices – wherever they were when they heard the request to “shelter in place.”

With “why” and “how” sketched in, the question turned to whether or not it actually did any good.  Certainly, if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had attempted to flee – instead of taking shelter in a boat – his movement across an otherwise stilled city would have registered.  But the image carries with it a video-game sensibility: hunter and prey against the backdrop of a depopulated city.

We wanted to believe that Tsarnaev wanted to run – and the city’s voluntary immobility held him hostage. But it may well be that he was the one holding Boston hostage.

NOTE: This piece was updated when lockdown ended.

PHOTO (Top): The normally traffic-jammed Commonwealth Avenue appears deserted in Boston, Massachusetts April 19, 2013, during the manhunt for Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the remaining suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.REUTERS/Neal Hamberg

PHOTO (Insert A): A woman watches police as they search for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects in Watertown, Massachusetts April 19, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

PHOTO (Insert B): SWAT teams enter a suburban neighborhood to search an apartment for the remaining suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in Watertown, Massachusetts April 19, 2013.  REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi


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“We wanted to believe that Tsarnaev wanted to run – and the city’s voluntary immobility held him hostage.” Wrong!

Any competent person in adversity evisions the worst possible challenge and then acts to minimize or contain it. In this case, that was that the perpetrator would be able to leave an area he was pretty much known to be in.

“But it may well be that he was the one holding Boston hostage.” No. Just as teachers instruct pupils where and when to shelter, so public officials do what they can to protect the public (even from themselves).

Was Boston’s shutdown the result of a terrorist act. Yes it was, but it was not INSTITUTED by those terrorists.

Terrorists must not be seen as having that much power. It was a measured and appropriate response to a real and continuing emergency. Words are important. Understanding and appropriate perception of the “issue” or “subject” are important. It’s a bonus when it “works” as intended.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Americas changing liberal overpopulation legal, illegal immigration population from a what can I do for my country to a what America can do for me country = more government control and less freedom. Now we can also ban all running and sports and large crowd marathons,guns, black powder, pressure cookers, and over reaction media circus what the hell is going on in America and all over the world ?. Janet Napolitano should be fired for letting these immigration terrorists shoplifing bastards come and go as they please in and out of the USA did we not learn from 9/11 so until the next media circus time

Posted by wolfman4u | Report as abusive