Reflections on the Boston Marathon Tragedy

By: George Noga – July 31, 2013
      Sufficient time has passed to allow sober reflections on events surrounding the Boston Marathon tragedy. My impression at the time they were unfolding was that the police have undergone a transmogrification to become much more like the military while, at the same time, the military is being forced to act more like civilian police. These role reversals are disastrous for both institutions as well as the American people.
“Police have become like the military and the military like the police. This is disastrous for police, the military and the American people.”
        Ultimately, the problems with police stem from the fact government has a monoply on the use of legally sanctioned force. Absent strict civilian controls, the natural order of things is the same as in any other monoply, i.e. over time policing becomes more and more autocratic and forfeits the erstwhile support of many citizens. The situation is exacerbated by virtue of police work being a closed subculture that attracts recruits from only a narrow band of society. Once initiated into the police fraternity, there is a special bonding and little openness to civil society.
        That was the situation in Boston. Even before the marathon, Bostonians were under virtual siege. They were hectored about drinking and rowdiness during the marathon, prohibited from gathering on their own porches and roofs and warned there would be zero tolerance. In a true civil society, it should be the citizens who tell the police what conduct is to be permitted. The good people of Boston circa 1770-1776 never would have tolerated such police misconduct.
       It was no surprise therefore when, following the bombing, thousands of police arrived including SWAT teams in armored personnel carriers resembling Star Wars Imperial Troopers. It had the feel of martial law or a coup in a banana republic. They shut down transportation, confined citizens to homes and behaved like an occupying force and all just to find one terrorist. Although I found this garish display of force out of proportion, the people of Boston didn’t as evidenced by their enthusiastically applauding the police when the manhunt was over.
“Private cameras photographed Tsarnevs. Private citizens identified them. A private citizen found Dzhokhar. Government failed Boston.”

      What lessons are we to take away from all this? Following are the top five.

  1. Police should act like police not the army. There must be civilian control and oversight. Non political leaders of civil society must be appointed to exercise the oversight and must resist regulatory capture, i.e. when over time, they become apoligists for the police.
  2. We need to open up police work to a wide swath of society and encourage police not to be insular. Myths need to be dispelled; police are not among the top 10 most hazardous jobs. Citizens are nearly 10 times more likely to be killed by police than by a terrorist.
  3. Government failed to heed Russian warnings about  the Tsarnevs. Government failed to detect they had returned to Chechnya and Dagestan. Boston police lacked photos of the Tsarnevs despite ample reasons to have them. The cameras used to identify the Tsarvevs were private. Private citizens identified the Tsarnevs. It was a  private citizen who found Dzhokhar. The lockdown delayed his capture. Police misallocated resources, focusing more on sidewalk beer drinking than terrorism. Government failed the people of Boston.
  4. In the midst of the crisis, a vast majority of otherwise ultra-liberal Bostonians would gladly have supported enhanced measures to capture the terrorists and to prevent any further acts of terror. This looks for all intents like vindication of Bush’s policies.
  5. To the fullest extent possible, police should operate like a market rather than a monoply. If they were subject to market forces, they would have acted far differently both before and during the marathon bombing. Coercive relationships breed antagonism, defiance and victimhood; one does not coerce a customer – instead one promotes trust and goodwill.

 Note to readers: I am taking a break; the next posting will be September 10-15.