The thriving metropolis of Boston was turned into a ghost town on Friday last week. Nearly a million Bostonians were asked to stay in their homes — and willingly complied. Schools were closed; business shuttered; trains, subways and roads were empty; usually busy streets eerily resembled a post-apocalyptic movie set; even baseball games and cultural events were canceled — all in response to a 19-year-old fugitive, who was on foot and clearly identified by the news media.
The actions allegedly committed by the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, were heinous. Four people dead and more than 100 wounded, several with shredded and amputated limbs.
However, Londoners, who endured the Irish Republican Army (IRA) terror threats for years, might be forgiven for thinking that the US overreacted just a bit to the goings-on in Boston. They are right — and then some.
What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we have ever seen in the US. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after Sept. 11, 2001, Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the “threat” of terrorism.
After all, it is not as if this is the first time that homicidal killers have been on the loose in a major city in the US.
In 2002, Washington was terrorized by two roving snipers, who randomly shot and killed 10 people.
In February, a disgruntled police officer, Christopher Dorner, murdered four people over several days in Los Angeles. In neither case was Los Angeles or Washington put on lockdown mode, perhaps because neither of these sprees was branded with that magically evocative and seemingly terrifying word for Americans — terrorism.
To be sure, public officials in Boston appeared to be acting out of an abundance of caution. And it is appropriate for Boston residents to be asked to take precautions or keep their eyes open.
However, by letting one fugitive terrorist shut down a major US city, Boston not only bowed to outsize and irrational fears, but sent a dangerous message to every would-be terrorist — if you want to wreak havoc in the US, terrorize its population and disrupt public order, here is your instruction booklet.
Putting aside the economic and psychological cost, the lockdown also prevented an early capture of the alleged bomber, who was discovered after Bostonians were given the all clear and a Watertown man wandered into his backyard for a cigarette and found a bleeding alleged terrorist on his boat.
In a few regards, there is a positive spin on what happened — it is a reflection of how little Americans have to worry about terrorism. A population such as London during the IRA bombings or Israel during the second intifada or Baghdad, pretty much every day, becomes inured to random political violence. Americans who have such little experience of terrorism, relatively speaking, are more primed to overreact — and assume the absolute worst when it comes to the threat of a terror attack. It is as if somehow in the US’ imagination, every terrorist is a not just a mortal threat, but is a deadly combination of Jason Bourne and James Bond.
If only Americans reacted the same way to the actual threats that exist in their country. There is something quite fitting about the fact that the Boston freak-out happened in the same week the US Senate blocked consideration of a gun control bill that would have strengthened background checks for potential buyers.