Boston Marathon Bombing Need Not Expand Government Powers

Bob Barr

4/24/2013 8:34:00 AM - Bob Barr

The terror attack at the Boston Marathon on April 15 is seared into our national conscience. Not since the tragic morning of September 11, 2001 has America experienced such a state of panic, confusion, and uncertainty about its domestic security. And while the casualties of the Boston terror attack fortunately were limited compared to what could have been, the repercussions of the bombing will have a profound affect on public policy in the United States, particularly as it regards law enforcement and national security policies.

Certainly, law enforcement personnel responded quickly and massively to track down both suspects -- killing one in a shoot-out and capturing the other hiding in a boat. However, now that the immediate threat has dissipated, serious questions remain about what happens next -- such as what to do now that the suspect is in custody, and how to guard against future attacks.

The vast majority of Americans know instinctively that the approach being championed impliedly by at least one United States Senator (Lindsey Graham of South Carolina) -- torturing the suspect in order to elicit intelligence information -- is wrong both morally and legally. That a sitting Senator would even suggest such a course of action is troublesome in the extreme. Thankfully, the Justice Department has not subscribed to such an extreme and unconstitutional reaction.

However, the "lock down" of large portions of Boston, a major metropolitan area, does raise important policy and legal questions. "The unprecendented [sic] shutdown of a major American city may have increased safety some small bit, but it was not without a cost,” writes one blogger at Arbitrarily "keeping somewhere between 2 and 5 million people from work, shopping, and school destroyed a nearly unimaginable amount of value," notes this analysis. The author adds that the cost also must be measured in the “degree to which it trains a population to freak out over minor risk and to trust blindly in authorities.”

What is referring to is the exceptional show of force and authority from law enforcement agencies at all levels, as they hunted the perpetrators. The manhunt swelled to more than 1,000 heavily armed federal, local and state officials, and included a blanket curfew that turned Boston and surrounding areas into veritable ghost towns. And, under exactly what lawful authority did this happen? Raising memories of law enforcement authorities going from house to house confiscating firearms in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, video footage from the Watertown, Massachusetts area shows SWAT teams clearing houses at gunpoint as they conducted house-to-house searches.

Yet, in spite of this massive assembly of law enforcement personel -- using the resources of the $60 billion-dollar Department of Homeland Security and the $8 billion-dollar Federal Bureau of Investigation -- it wasn’t a government agent who discovered Tsarnaev in his hiding place.

In fact, almost every break in this case came from civilians. Key video footage of the two terrorists during the initial attack was provided from the private security cameras of department store Lord & Taylor; this is in addition to other video and still images provided by race spectators. The initial manhunt began with the eight words of bombing witness and victim Jeff Bauman, who wrote to police: “Bag, saw the guy, looked right at me.” And, Tsarnaev was eventually discovered -- not by police, but by homeowners who ventured outside after the curfew was lifted and noticed their boat cover was disturbed.

This key involvement by citizens in the final resolution of the Boston manhunt, however, has not slowed elected officials from clamoring for increased government power to spy on citizens. Both U.S. Congressman Peter King (R-NY) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have called for even more surveillance cameras than already network the streets of New York and other major cities; with King noting [somewhat incorrectly] that increased surveillance “keeps us ahead of the terrorists, who are constantly trying to kill us.” Additionally, Sen. Graham used the bombing to further one of his pet projects -- as proof of the need for drones to surreptitiously surveil private citizens. He told the Washington Post, “[i]t sure would be nice to have a drone up there.”

The speed with which many elected and appointed public officials rushed to call for more government power to surveil and control the citizenry in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, is similar to the knee-jerk responses to recent mass shootings such as that by deranged individual Adam Lanza in Newtown last December.

Post mortems in both instances are appropriate and necessary to see if gaps in public policies existed, or if mistakes were made. However, overlooking the vast powers already available to the government and claiming yet further powers are necessary, regardless of their legality or constitutionality, should not be among the responses by public officials; and they should not be countenanced by, or acquiesced to, the American public. Unfortunately, cooler heads once again may not prevail, and the Constitution may yet be further eroded.