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The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Authoritarian Impulse in America

Since Monday afternoon, when two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring 183 more, one of America’s great cities and the whole nation and much of the world beyond has been fixated on the unfolding aftermath of what can only be labeled a terrorist attack. As details about the methods of the act and eventually information about the suspects trickled in over the course of the week, it fed not a sense of healing and calm but an edgy mass anxiety tinged with the sting of popular mourning. It certainly could not help that another mid-week large-scale disaster, the deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant near West, Texas, added to the tragic public mood.

This low simmer of unease rolled rapidly into a violent boil of renewed, sustained terror late Thursday night. Late that night and into the early morning hours of Friday, the recently-revealed bombing suspects (and brothers) Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shot and killed a MIT campus police officer, engaged in a major gun-and-explosives battle with police that left the elder Tamerlan dead, and touched off a tense, overwhelming city-wide manhunt that saw all of Boston locked down and, by 9 pm on Friday, the younger Dzhokhar arrested by the authorities. All of this was reported breathlessly by both traditional television as well as online media, minute-by-minute.

It was fascinating to watch events unfold and reactions unfold with them on real time on social media. The online community was both more timely in disseminating and interpreting the deluge of information on the day of the bombing and of the manhunt than the old media (even cable news, where usual reliable mainstay CNN did not precisely cover itself in glory) and less responsible and certain in this dissemination. Nothing new and exciting emerged about the relative current affairs potential (and pitfalls) of web communities like Twitter or Reddit that we did not basically know before, and if anything was revealed it was how well certain hoary old media giants have adapted to the new formats as opposed to others (the Boston Globe’s Twitter feed was indispensible; their reports were far out ahead of other outlets, and usually proven right in the end).

Beyond the standard analysis of media coverage, however, the events of this past week in the Boston area carried grimmer implications for the American political and social order. The overwhelming force of the ever-growing national-security-complex-enabled police state was out in full force in Boston, as a major U.S. city was completely locked down for the better part of a day due to a single teenager with a gun (who turned out to be grievously injured and sheltering in a boat in someone’s backyard all that time). Coming at the end of a week in which major new gun-control legislation was defeated in Congress, the applicability of the situation to these events was not lost on gun-control advocates.

Nor was the heavy-handed invocation of public safety measures as an excuse to curb constitutional freedoms (of Boston-metropolitan residents as well as of Chechen-descended, Kyrgyzstan-born American citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was not read his Miranda rights despite a Department of Justice indication that criminal courts will handle his case) in the name of security lost on civil liberties defenders, of which Glenn Greenwald is the most imperiously vocal. It isn’t simply that constitutional rights or the rule of law are suspended in the face of terrorism (domestic though it may be) and a resulting atmosphere of fear. Nor is it that a vindictive jingoism (the bullheaded “USA” chant erupted in the streets when the living suspect’s capture went public) and xenophobic persecution (a Muslim woman and her child were bullied in public in the city’s suburbs in response to the events) are the most fundamental reactions to any threat in post-War-on-Terror-era America (to say nothing of geographical ignorance; many angry “Real Americans” wanted military action against the Czech Republic once the suspects’ ethnic backgrounds were made public, mistaking the Central European democracy for Central Asian Russian breakaway state Chechnya).

What the Boston Marathon bombings, the hunt for its suspects, and the undercurrent of authoritarianism of the entire exercise has shown is that America has changed deeply in the decade-plus since the 9/11. Or, perhaps, certain darker, more oppressive elements in its national character have simply come out more strongly and inevitably than before. How the justice system and the wider public approaches the denouement of these events will go a long way towards suggesting whether or not the authoritarian impulse is ascendant in American life, or if a civil society can still be reconciled with widespread anxiety over terrorist threats.

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