In a remarkable post, Radley Balko revisists Boston a year after the marathon bombing. Boston landmark, Faneuil Hall, bears the nickname “the cradle of liberty.” On top is a grasshopper weather vane.
Knowledge of the grasshopper was used as a shibboleth during the Revolution period. The people would ask suspected spies to identity the object on the top of Faneuil Hall; if they answered correctly, then they were free; if not, they were convicted as British spies.
One could never be too careful when liberty was at risk. Not in Boston. Not in the cradle of liberty. When the dry goods merchants decided to risk their lives and fortunes to free themselves from England, they understood the risk demanded by freedom. They understood that good people would die in the fight. Freedom was worth the risk.
Since then, things have changed.
The economist and historian Robert Higgs has written prolifically over the years about what he calls the “ratchet effect.” In times of crisis, governments tend to expand, usually at the expense of civil liberties. When the crisis abates, government power does, too, but never completely back to where it was before. With each subsequent crisis, government encroaches a bit more. Higgs has documented the effect through major wars, depressions and other national emergencies.
Having fought and won our freedom, the challenge became our safety. With each crisis, we took another small step away from the grasshopper weather vane toward security, at the expense of civil liberties. Each time, we rationalized that it was a small price to pay for safety. While this nation has gone through its share of crises, the reaction to the marathon bombing in Boston stood apart, as the cradle of freedom went on lockdown.
[W]e haven’t seen a lockdown and an occupation of an American city on the scale of what happened in Boston after the marathon since the Watts riots — not in Oklahoma City after the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995, not in Atlanta after the 1996 bombing in Centennial Olympic Park, not in D.C. during the 2002 sniper attacks, not after a series of pipe bombs went off in federal courthouse in San Diego in 2008, not during the dozens of instances in which a mass killer or serial killer was still at large.
In the name of protecting people from harm, in the name of “emergency,” the City of Boston was put under siege.
In Boston, 19,000 National Guard troops moved into an American city, not to put down a civil uprising, quell riots or dispel an insurrection, but to search for a single man. Armored vehicles motored up and down residential neighborhoods. Innocent people were confronted in their homes at gunpoint or had guns pointed at them for merely peering through the curtains of their own windows.
But at the time, with fear in the air, few questioned whether this was the way in which Americans should react to a threat. Put aside that it was just a couple of kids, eventually just one, and not a marauding army of redcoats. Put aside that these tactics eventually proved unavailing, as the capture of the last bomber came about because a guy heard some noise in his boat in Watertown.
As Radley documents, the post-crisis assessment is replete with praise for the bravery of first responders and pleas for continued funding of the agencies and mechanisms the government swears will protect us from harm.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, for example, Massachusetts Undersecretary for Homeland Security and Emergency Management Kurt Schwartz touted the city’s SWAT teams, surveillance systems and bomb-detection teams, and stressed the importance that all these programs receive continued funding to prevent future attacks.
To the extent that that the post-Boston reports and statements from government officials do reference the response, it has usually been to lavish effusive praise, not thoughtful reflection or constructive criticism.
The reason is made explicitly clear: Schwartz’s foremost concern was public safety:
Their decisions were informed by, and reflected public safety concerns, needs, and objectives. Their positive working relationship was based on trust, respect, and a commonality of purpose and mission, and it fostered such decision making and opportunities for bold “out of the box” decisions such as Governor Patrick’s decision to deploy the National Guard into Boston on April 15th to support law enforcement efforts, and issue the April 19th shelter in place request for Boston, Watertown, and four other surrounding cities . . .
Where Boston’s “out of the box” decisions were once to risk death for freedom, there was now a common mission to suspend liberty for safety.
All of this can be easily explained by the special circumstances of the Boston Marathon bombing. But a new floor was created, the “ratchet effect” where we accept another small step away from liberty whenever a common threat is perceived. And lest we blame government for this, consider how the descendants of our forefathers dealt with it.
The public heeded requests and directions from Governor Patrick, Mayor Menino and public safety leaders, including the unprecedented request on April 19th . . . Businesses heeded this request as well, and remained closed for an entire business day.
The Boston Marathon was run this year, with a huge police presence lest any crisis happen again. But the next time a crisis presents itself, and it will, the shutdown of a major city will strike no one as unthinkable. And no one will need to ask about the weathervane atop Faneuil Hall to figure out if you’re friend or foe, as the street will be cleared of all citizens, with only armored vehicles and SWAT teams in absolute control.
And the people in the Cradle of Liberty will cheer the bravery of those who protect them and keep them safe in their homes, under armed guard.