White Flag Over Boston?

If it takes a village to raise a child, then what kind of society spawns a 19-year-old terrorist? We can explore "foreign" influences on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev all we want, but my hunch is we’d have better luck looking in the mirror if we really want to understand him. What motivated the young man to help his brother to explode two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and then to engage in shootouts with police worthy of, well, a Hollywood blockbuster? Perhaps a dream that fails a little more each year, or that refuses to come true at all for more and more Americans.

Boston, a city that prides itself on its independence, went supine with fear, apparently volunteering for martial law as lawmen went door-to-door demanding the right to search each home on their radar for a single suspect. Watch as a new national standard in law enforcement emerges: City in crisis? Then lock it down. Demand entry into every home. Dispense even with the requirement of general warrant, the hated instrument the king’s men used in colonial America to ransack the people’s homes and papers. Declare an emergency and all will be forgiven.

And as Mr. Tsarnaev lay recuperating from gunshot wounds in a Boston hospital, federal prosecutors chest thumped that he need not be advised of a right to counsel: This is an emergency, they crow. The ends justify the means. We need to make sure the city is safe. Nary a peep of disapproval echoes from a city that was once the home to the likes of Sam Adams.

President Barack Obama was all patriotic gore after the two bombers were either killed or in custody. "They failed because the people of Boston refused to be intimidated," he said.

Not so fast, Mr. President. Did Boston flinch, and become the bloodied bitch of terrorists, yielding all to state and federal lawmen simply to feel safe again?

I’ve family in Cambridge. Indeed, a niece went to a prom with Mr. Tsarnaev – the young man’s friends remain stunned that the sweet and loving boy and young man they knew could be involved in acts so frightening. They were scared as they heard police tear around town, and they were terrified about leaving their homes. There is no shame in this fear.

But there is something more terrifying that a lone wolf wandering the city after a gunfight, at least there used to be something more terrifying in our historic imagination: We used to fear the king’s men barging into our homes without a particularized and specific need to do so. We used to fear secret interrogations. We used to fear the government would use any pretext to expand its dominion and control over our lives. Now we applaud lawmen who get tough on terror, and excuse them any excess in the name of safety.

The winner in the Boston Marathon bombing? It may well be the Tsarnaev brothers.

They’ve certainly captured the hearts and minds of United States Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. The senators want the 19-year-old suspect classified an "enemy combatant" so that he can be held at a military base, detained indefinitely, and deprived of the rights we used to guarantee to a man accused of a crime in this country.

Mr. Tsarnaev is an American citizen. He is accused of a crime on American soil. His older brother may or may not have connections to foreign extremist groups. Just how this justifies depriving an American citizen of fundamental rights is a telling example of how quickly the slippery slope in the war on terror becomes a descent into Hell. It is a pity we cannot impeach senators. These men are unworthy of the offices they hold.

We’ve been engaged in a decade-plus war on terror in this country, and there is no end in sight to it. Instead, we’re told year-by-year we need to yield more to government so that it can fight our hidden foes. We routinely kill by remote control with drones. We detain people indefinitely and out of sight forever. Now we can lock a city down and rummage through the homes of its citizens on mere declaration of a governor. And still we are not safe enough.

Is it any wonder that terrorists strike us from time to time at home? We’ve spawned a generation of folks with deep grievances against our swagger in the world. The cold war is over, but our armed forces and intelligence services still consume a staggering portion of federal spending; our state and local law enforcement officers are well armed, and forever in need of new tools to surveil and control us. We arm ourselves, too, hissing about tyranny, but knowing full well that armed resistance to any governing authority is futile. We’re frightened, we’re angry, and, some of us least, are alienated from any prospect of singing the national hymn of prosperity for all.

The stock market reaches record highs? How many Americans have dropped out of the labor force? Corporations thrive and expand into all areas of American life? How many middle aged Americans have lost all hope of anything more than a minimum wage? Banks forge mortgage notes? Courts scurry to find way to protect bankers while tossing ordinary folks to the street.

We imprison more people in this the land of the free than anywhere else on Earth. We lag behind other developed nations in care for children, health care, life expectancy. And yet we continue to congratulate ourselves for being a City on a Hill.

The scream of those who despair over all this will not remain silent forever.

Are we naive enough to believe there won’t be further acts of terror committed right here, in our communities, on prime-time broadcasts from our streets, and not on the streets of people we view from afar with a certain smug sense of superiority?

It’s easy to kill and to condemn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. We can call him evil, a monster, a dupe of dark, sinister and foreign forces. And to keep ourselves safe from further evil acts we can become much like the world we condemn -- a place of iron fists, and ideological blinders applied where the bloody nighttime necessities of security collide with our daytime conceits about liberty.

We can, and, I suspect, we will, rest content with name calling, choosing willful blindness about what motivates terror, until, finally, and some time not to far removed from our own, we wake up to realize we lost the war on terror by becoming the very thing we used to fear most – a people no longer truly free. That’s when terror wins, when there is nothing left to protect.

I hope I am wrong about Boston. But initial signs are the city hung out a white flag in the days following the bombing. I’d hate to think the legacy of the bombing is a new wave of assaults on our freedom to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and the well-meaning conceits of those who think they know best how we should live.

The patriots used to say "Live Free or Die." They weren’t in Boston last week.


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