DRI-343 for week of 4-21-13: Lockdown Lessons

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Lockdown Lessons

On Monday, April 15, 2013, Tax Day or Patriot’s Day, according to your viewpoint, two powerful explosions rocked the finish line of the venerable Boston Marathon in Boston, MA. The homemade bombs killed three people and injured over 200 others. Although no individuals or groups stepped forward to claim responsibility for the acts, the modus operandi strongly suggested terrorism as the source.

Law enforcement officials reacted quickly. Local police were already on hand to provide security. They were joined by special police, state police and (eventually) the FBI. (Federal law confers jurisdictional seniority on the FBI when terrorism is implicated in the crime.) Immediate attention focused on identifying suspects for the bombings, using surveillance video of the marathon scene. Two young men wearing white and black caps, respectively, were shown apparently placing satchels like those carrying the bombs.

Frames from the videos were publicly disseminated late Thursday afternoon. The public was put on notice to watch for the suspects. Late Thursday evening, a holdup at a campus convenience store drew the attention of police. The first responder, an MIT campus policeman, encountered the two suspects. Initially, it was thought that they had held up the store, but later the meeting was ascribed to an “ambush” of the officer by the suspects. In the ensuing exchange of gunfire, the policeman was killed. A few minutes later, the suspects carjacked a Mercedes and its driver, who subsequently escaped. In the wee hours of Friday morning, police pursuit overtook the pair in the Watertown suburb of Boston. In the resulting shootout, one suspect was fatally wounded and run over by the other, who made his escape. Meanwhile, another police officer was critically injured.

Now possessing a body to work with, authorities were able to identify the suspects as two natives of Chechnya, who had been in this country for nine years. The dead man was 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a former Golden Gloves boxer and subsequent community-college dropout. The suspect at large was his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar, a nursing student. By the time Boston residents woke up Friday morning, they discovered that much of the metropolitan area was “on lockdown.”


The implications of the evocative term are mostly self-evident. Residents were told to stay indoors, keep their doors locked and respond only to the police. Transit service – subway, buses and taxis – was suspended. Amtrak cancelled its daily service. The FAA declared a no-fly zone over a radius of the Boston metro area centered on the manhunt zone. Logan Airport was closed to outgoing traffic; vehicles entering the airport were stopped at roadblocks. Businesses were requested to close, except for those providing service to emergency workers. The streets were deserted, populated only by police personnel and vehicles, FBI, emergency medical personnel and news media crews. Private vehicles were stopped every few blocks for searches and interrogations. Military personnel and equipment, including tanks, patrolled the streets.

Law enforcement personnel began a house-to-house search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown. By the end of the day, they had not found him. At the end of the day, the lockdown was lifted. Within minutes of the unlocking, a man in Watertown entered his backyard and noticed what appeared to be blood on the tarp covering his boat. He peered under the tarp and saw a wounded man crouching there. He immediately notified police, who converged on the house and confronted the suspect. Yet another firefight ensued, which ended with the boat full of bullet holes and a seriously wounded Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in custody. The weeklong drama was over.

In the immediate aftermath of this significant episode in American history, much factual information remains to be learned. It is clear that we still lack a coherent legal framework of legal principles applicable to terrorism. But one issue sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb as worthy of discussion.

Why was a substantial portion of the Boston metropolitan area – including the municipalities of Watertown, Newton, Waltham, Cambridge, Belmont and Arlington and the neighborhoods of Allston-Brighton in Boston – essentially frozen in place with a lockdown order for over twelve hours because one 19-year-old murder suspect remained at large?

The Rationale for the “Historic Lockdown”

The action was accepted matter-of-factly by local residents and news media. The Wall Street Journal reported that, apart from “a crowd [who] gathered at the police blockade set up near the suspects’ home in Cambridge,” people mostly stayed indoors. “It was so quiet that leaves shaking in a gentle breeze could be heard. Only a handful of people ventured outside.” Those included a few businesses catering to the needs of emergency personnel.

Yet this was, as the Journal termed it, a “historic lockdown.” Editor Holman Jenkins called it “a reaction unlike any other triple homicide in Boston history.” He might have upped the ante by citing U.S. history. After all, Chicago averages over a murder per day, but we’ve never seen the city locked down as Boston was last Friday. Serials killers, professional assassins and even terrorists like Carlos the Jackal have been on the loose before – but we never brought a major U.S. city to its knees to search for them. Why now?

Lip service was given to the pretext that it was for the safety of residents. That is patently absurd. The bombings occurred on Monday. We knew somebody had done it. But there was no lockdown. By Tuesday, we had surveillance photos of two suspects and satchels, as well as remnants of bombs providing evidence that primitive, but effective, homemade explosives had been used. And the suspects and their weapons remained at large. But there was no lockdown.

On Thursday and Friday, our suspicions about the suspects were confirmed when they were sighted and flushed from cover after they had ambushed and killed the MIT police officer. But there was no lockdown until after the death of one policeman and critical wounding of another, until after one of the suspects was fatally wounded, then run over by his brother, who proceeded to escape. At this point, we were now pursuing one 19-year old suspect known to possess a handgun and only those explosives he might possibly have on his person. (His lodgings were under guard.)

Now, suddenly, when the danger was less than at any point since the bombing at the start of the week and our knowledge was the greatest, the lockdown was instituted. The one thing we can say for sure is that residents’ safety was not the motivation. What was?

The only other possible motivation for the lockdown was to assist in the apprehension of the remaining suspect at large, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Presumably the thinking of authorities was that the absence of pesky citizens would make anybody on the streets stand out. Police, military, national security and emergency personnel could be easily identified. Anybody else would be readily noticeable and pinpointed as an outlier, who would be unable to blend into a crowd and vanish. He would be easy to apprehend, interrogate, identify or – if necessary – kill.

The reaction of the mainstream media has been that the successful apprehension of the suspect vindicated this action. It is interesting to speculate about their reaction had the chase gone on longer. But as it was, the attitude might be summed up as: All’s well that ends well.

This is perfectly ridiculous.

Why the Lockdown Was Wrong in Theory

“All’s well that ends well” is a time-honored maxim but that doesn’t ratify any exercise of power under the Rule of Law. We didn’t know beforehand that things would turn out as well as they did. Moreover, there are always unintended consequences flowing from actions like the lockdown – how do they affect our evaluation of this case?

The tacit premises of the lockdown appear to be that, first, since there is a terrorist on the loose it is prudential to put everything else in the immediate vicinity on hold until he is captured. Second, the best way to facilitate that capture is to freeze the city in place and forestall most normal activity.

What does “normal activity” consist of? In economic terms, production and consumption of goods and services. (We are now excluding production for the sake of law-enforcement and emergency personnel, since a few shops remained open for this purpose.) So the implicit logic of the lockdown is that bringing all this to a halt is no great sacrifice compared to the potential loss of life that might ensue if the suspect remained at large. Perhaps lockdown proponents were imagining how trivial most of everyday life seemed compared to the high drama of cops and terrorists.

Of course, this was all wrong. Wrong in theory and equally wrong in practice.

In theory, as Anthony Gregory of the Independent Institute has pointed out, the authority to suspend transportation, interdict travel, limit mobility, stop and interrogate citizens at will, and search house-to-house without specific warrants amounts to a declaration of martial law. Only the governor of a state can do this. Precedent dictates it only in times of true emergency – wartime or natural disaster – when local security is threatened by invasion or riotous disorder.

The governor did not declare martial law, which is not surprising since there was neither war nor natural disaster. Of course, the tentative identification of the suspects hinted at terrorism as the motive for the bombings. But this is miles away from legal justification. The suspect was not even on a terrorist watch list. He was not known to possess explosives or any weapon apart from a handgun. To invoke a metaphoric “War on Terrorism” as an excuse for martial law would have made a mockery of the principle and a laughingstock of the public official responsible.

So, since there was no legal justification for their actions, the authorities just went ahead and took them. They acted without legal authority. And nobody questioned them, apparently.

This is not an isolated incident. It is a culmination of a decades-long trend that was accelerated by the “War on Drugs.” The Drug War has featured escalating levels of violence by criminals and police, increasing militarization of the police force and willful repudiation of such individual rights as private property and freedom of speech, action and mobility. The Boston lockdown is merely one step further on the same path of arbitrary power seized by government and freedom surrendered by private citizens.

Confronted by this reasoning, proponents of the lockdown have so far resorted to two defenses. The first is that the end justifies the means; i.e., the favorable outcome achieved by the lockdown washes away any sin committed in its name. The second is emotional: We are under attack and must use the weapons of war to defend ourselves and our way of life.

The first of these arguments is wrong in this specific case and wrong in general. The second, like any appeal to emotion, cannot be refuted in logical terms. It can only be met with a countervailing emotional appeal.

Why the Lockdown Was Wrong in Practice

The joy and relief that greeted the apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev seems to have overcome the public’s reasoning powers. The lockdown was a failure, not a success. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was caught after the lockdown was lifted, not while it was in force. Minutes after being unlocked, a private citizen went into his back yard and, noticing blood on his covered boat, lifted the boat’s tarp to discover a wounded man crouching underneath. He called police.

Despite the clear field created by the lockdown, the small army of law-enforcers did not find the suspect. Finally, they had to admit defeat and lift the lockdown. And within minutes, one solitary citizen did what all the King’s horses and all the King’s men failed to do – merely by strolling into his back yard. What an incredible irony!

Or was it?

An economist worth his or her salt might have predicted it. The late, great Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek was the first to point out that free markets avail themselves of the “information of particular time and place” – data that is dispersed among billions of individuals and not within reach of central-planning authorities. The back yard capture of Tsarnaev is just such a case. For centuries, police have known that voluntary compliance is required for successful law enforcement. The chief source of information used in solving crimes is tips and testimony from the public; that is why police constantly appeal for witnesses to come forward. That is why crime flourishes within communities (such as urban black ghettos) where distrust of police prevents this cooperation.

The lockdown foreclosed this process. It did not merely fail in this particular case; it invited failure by excluding the public and paralyzing normal life. It is very likely that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would have been uncovered hours earlier in a city going about its day-to-day business. Of course, he probably would have been discovered by private citizens rather than police, thereby exposing the finder(s) to danger – but that’s exactly what happened anyway. Except that this way, it happened later, after the damage of the lockdown had been done.

The idea that the lockdown itself caused concrete damage seems not to have occurred to the authorities, as if a day’s worth of production and consumption in a great city is nothing to worry about, more or less. In economic terms, this attitude is madness.

Every day, people produce things that save lives and enhance the quality of life. By forcing people to stay home, the authorities drastically skew this process in favor of less highly valuable activities and more relatively trivial ones. In the process, they flush away a few hundred million dollars worth of goods and services. (Ironically, the lockdown itself treats the production activities themselves as though they were comparatively valueless.) There is no objective way to measure the lives that were lost and devalued by the lockdown, but we know that this loss was real. Only its magnitude is unknown. In contrast, the danger posed by the suspect was speculative. There might have been no loss of life or injury at all on that Friday. (In fact, one policeman was apparently wounded in the conclusive shootout, and the finder’s boat was badly shot up.)

The voluntary aid provided by private citizens to law enforcement is not negligible. Indeed, news sources suggest that it was the belated publication of the suspects’ photographs that triggered their chaotic actions on Thursday, which were apparently part of their attempted flight from the city. Thus, it was this very informational link between citizenry and law enforcement that had neutralized the first suspect and put the second behind the eight-ball. The lockdown severed that link by putting citizens in the dark, in their homes.

The bureaucratic monopoly held by local police and higher-level agencies has had predictable economic consequences. The lack of competition has allowed law enforcement to grow larger (thereby increasing real incomes of its members) and less efficient, without having to pay the price paid by private businesses that would lose customers, revenue and profit if they behaved similarly.

The Boston lockdown illustrates the results of this process. The authorities failed to identify the suspects from the surveillance video (which was taken by a private business, Lord and Taylor’s, and given to police). Eventually, the suspects were sighted after they ambushed a campus policeman. They were chased to Watertown, where a shootout followed. One suspect was wounded. The other suspect, a 19-year-old who was not an experienced criminal, nonetheless managed to escape the police, FBI and military for almost 24 hours, despite running over his brother at the scene. What a sorry exhibition of law enforcement!

The law-enforcement authorities reacted to their own incapable display by demanding more power with which to do their job. This is the reflex reaction of government, which reacts to its own failure by ascribing it to inadequate resources and demanding even more money and power. In a free market, this would be tantamount to a business blaming consumers for its failure to produce its product efficiently and insisting that it be given more production inputs and allowed to raise its price.

Apart from clearing the decks of normal daily activity to allow police, FBI and military unimpeded movement, the lockdown also performed another, more subtle, function. It was a psychological escalation of force that distracted attention from government’s failure to accomplish its task by sending the message: “We’re on the case and now we’re going to get really serious about this terrorist.”

Whereas a private business must actually serve the consumer’s wants in order to stay in business, a government monopoly faces no such constraint. Its only concerns are political. It doesn’t actually have to solve problems; it need only look and act busy. The lockdown not only looks busy, it forces citizens to actually feel how busy the government has become in its anti-terrorist activities. The fact that the lockdown is actually counterproductive is beside the point.

And to top off the political advantages of the lockdown, it sets a precedent for further exercise of government power. Now the government can do virtually anything it wishes as long as it blows an official whistle and announces “terrorism” as its rationale for action. Alas, what is good for government is bad for the citizenry at large.

The notion that the lockdown succeeded is a ghastly misreading. It failed miserably in theory and practice. It was a bad idea from the start and only got worse. The myth of its success will cause it to be emulated in the future. And the stakes will only rise from this point on.

Freedom or Security?

Proponents of the lockdown give short shrift to legalities and freedom. They give no appearance of knowing or caring about its known economic loss, let alone weighing it against the much more speculative character of any sparing of life or limb. They invoke the specter of war and the principle that national security outweighs every other consideration.

Benjamin Franklin famously warned that “those who give up essential liberty in exchange for a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.” It is probably fair to say that lockdown proponents would deny that the liberties lost are essential and would vigorously dispute that the security gained is either small or temporary. But the arguments above cannot be waved away.

Only wartime defense can justify the surrender of freedom to the state. And “war” means literal life-or-death combat with a nation state that can end only with death or surrender by one of the combatant nations. The rhetorical accompaniment to the advancing power of government and disregard of constitutional law is the cheapening of language. It is akin to the devaluing of a currency’s purchasing power caused by over-issue of money by big government. We have seen the word “war” applied as a rhetorical intensifier to juice up political support for government spending on poverty or anti-drug programs. Now it is used to justify the arbitrary actions of the law-enforcement authorities.

Those arbitrary actions are converting the U.S. from a voluntary society that solicits cooperation among citizens and between citizens and government to a hierarchical society in which government demands obedience from citizens, who fight over control of the all-powerful government. That is the danger posed by measures like those of last Friday. The meekness that greeted the lockdown signals how far along that road we have come.

Rather than invoke the emotional image of war, we should instead appeal to our love of freedom. No band of terrorists is strong enough to threaten the security of the United States, despite the toll of victims they might rack up. (Consider the example of Israel, which has survived a vastly greater onslaught of terror despite its small size and stock of resources.) But history proves that we are a danger to ourselves. The Constitution was crafted expressly to forestall the danger that we now face – not from terrorists, but from the arbitrary actions of our own government.