We gave Tsarnaevs the attention they wanted

The suspects were nobodies who wanted to spread fear. A citywide lockdown and media hysteria helped them do that

Published April 20, 2013 3:00PM (EDT)

 Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, approximately 10-20 minutes before the Boston Marathon explosions, Monday, April 15, 2013.     (AP/Bob Leonard)
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, approximately 10-20 minutes before the Boston Marathon explosions, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP/Bob Leonard)

A major American city was largely shut down for an entire day because of the hunt for someone who, based on initial reports, was quite possibly a confused, apolitical teenager, who may have been cajoled into taking part in what was essentially a bloody publicity stunt by his now-dead older brother.

As the Boston Globe reported:

Almost 1 million people in metropolitan Boston remained under siege Friday as police conducted a massive manhunt for one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.

The region felt as if it had been gripped by martial law: Police armed with rifles patrolled deserted streets in Boston, Watertown, Cambridge, Waltham, Newton, Belmont, and Brookline, and residents hunkered inside, under authorities’ unprecedented order.

Authorities shut down all MBTA service, halting subways, trains, and buses. City and town halls were closed. Public works canceled trash pickup, keeping garbage trucks off streets. Courthouses kept their doors closed.

It’s always difficult to address the overreaction to certain types of risks, especially the risks posed by violent, politically motivated crime (aka “terrorism”), without sounding potentially callous about the terrible losses suffered by those victimized by such crimes.

Nevertheless, this week’s spectacle in the Boston area was a testament to the kind of political and media hysteria that, ironically, makes crimes of this sort more likely to happen in the future. What happened in Boston on Monday was indeed terrible, but many terrible things happen in our country every day.

For example, Thursday in Chicago, at least eight people, including three teenagers, were shot over a 12-hour period, in seven separate incidents. This is such an ordinary occurrence in that city that you will have to look hard for any mention of these crimes in the local media. (In the national media, the fact that in some of our major cities several people are shot on just about every day of the year is not something that normally warrants any mention. Dog bites man, as they say in the business.)

Indeed, that’s pretty much an ordinary day in Chicago, but since this carnage isn’t being carried out by media-savvy criminals, who combine their addled nihilism with a hunger for publicity, no one pays much attention, let alone shuts down an entire city.

It’s easy to second-guess law enforcement personnel in a chaotic high-profile situation. In the first few hours after Thursday night’s events, some initial overreaction was understandable. Nevertheless, while sealing off the neighborhood in which the suspect was believed to be hiding was certainly reasonable, continuing to maintain an informal lockdown of the whole metropolitan area for an entire day was a much more dubious decision.

As yesterday drew to a close, Boston-area residents must have wondered why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being treated as if he was some sort of existential threat to the entire region – especially since treating him in this way caters to the grandiose fantasies that fuel what, for now, remain extremely rare outbursts of murderous pseudo-political theater, that depend for their very existence on the overreaction of the political and media establishments.

So how should the authorities treat political crimes of this sort? While of course every case is unique, it would be good to keep a few basic principles in mind.

First, giving politically motivated criminals more publicity than necessary is giving them exactly what they want. It’s important to remember that the Tsarnaev brothers were a couple of nobodies, whose only real power came from their ability to use their very limited capacity to engage in acts of public violence to create a level of public terror out of all proportion to any threat they could pose to the public as a whole. (Again, I emphasize that none of this is to deny the horrible suffering they managed to wreak on their victims).

Second, terrorism only “works” to the extent that people are terrorized. Telling 1 million people to cower in their homes for an entire day (as opposed to prudently closing off a particular neighborhood) is giving those people – indeed, all of us – exactly the wrong message.

While watching yesterday’s surreal events unfold on television, I was reminded of the story of how, during the London Blitz, the working-class sections of the city took the heaviest damage, but on one occasion Buckingham Palace itself was hit. I recalled in particular the comment made by the king’s wife: “Now,” she said, “I can show my face in the East End.”

By Paul Campos

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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