In Which a Civics/Sociology Teacher Asks Some Questions About A 20 Hour Mass Detention in a Major American City

Wow.  I binge-watched a really intense suspense thriller this week.  Oh, wait…

I’ve been thinking a LOT about the unprecedented situation in Boston on Thursday/Friday.  (as evidenced by some of my status posts yesterday) An historically unique event happened.  Not the capture of a terrorist/murder suspect.  Not a massive manhunt.  Not racist/sectarian accusations based on ignorance and sensationalism.  All those things have happened lots of times before.  But in American history, there has never been a complete and total lockdown of millions of people in a major metropolitan area for 20 hours in order to perform a police action…and one in which the citizens completely complied.  I pass no judgment on the situation at this point because it’s too early in the understanding of it or even the processing of it.

But I have a LOT of questions about the ramifications of this event with regard to A) sociology: the group behavior that was clearly observable within the situation and outside of it; and B) the political issues of it with regard to a society that rarely sees the surrender of rights in the pursuit of safety so vividly played out in front of them.

The following are questions/thoughts I’ve had so far.  I invite you to add your own questions and thoughts.  This is only the start of a discussion so there don’t have to be answers and no one needs to defend anything – this isn’t a debate, it’s a brainstorm.  Yes, I’m being a little teacher-y, so you have to suffer for the fact I don’t have a classroom of students right now to inflict this on, but on the other hand, it might be a way for you to work through what you yourself have experienced this last week.  Because even though you might not have been in Boston or Watertown, you experienced the terror of a viscous bombing attack and the resulting affects of that fear, anxiety, grief and anger.  Perhaps just thinking through some of these things will help you process it a little.  I’m focusing solely on the time period of 10pm EST Thursday through 3-4pm EST Friday, which is the period in which the lockdown occurred.

There are many reasons to execute a “stay in your homes” directive: natural disaster, chemical spill, crazy killer on the loose, etc.  But never have we seen this sort of thing, with a major American city brought to a complete and total silent standstill, with millions of people cooperating in their own indefinite sequestration.

I think it’s instructive to note the difference between this specific situation and the resultant debate after 9/11. There has been ongoing questions about the removal or limiting of 4th Amendment rights (among others) via the PATRIOT ACT.  That is a MUCH broader situation and in some ways, that makes it more difficult for people to grasp in any practical way with regard to their own behavior.  When it is a nebulous “that doesn’t affect me” situation, it is hard to get a lot of citizens riled up about it (much to the dismay of Civil Liberties defenders).  We have already shown a general willingness to give up some 4th Amendment rights at the airport, etc.  While the following questions are aimed specifically at the Boston/Watertown situation, I do wonder if the last 12 years has been a subtle conditioning of which we only now realize the the extent.

So I’ll start.  Here are my initial questions and thoughts about the lockdown period.  This is COMPLETELY about the detention issues – NOT about the bombers, the case, the mechanics of the search itself, or any other part of this (all other worthy conversation topics) – I’m just right now thinking through the singular situation witnessed and experienced by millions during the quarantine.


  • There has not been one reported instance of resistance or defiance of the lockdown order so far (perhaps some will emerge as we proceed into the aftermath).  There was also NO concern expressed by the millions of worldwide onlookers during the event.  Now there are some things being published about it.  But during that 20 hours, I saw no clear discussions on any social networking or major discussion sites, and none on any of the msm coverage that indicated any concern about the issues contained within this police action. Until it started getting dark again and people started wondering how long it would go on.  That is amazing to me.
  • Millions of people agreed to be interned in their own homes for almost 24 hours. What combination of powerful incentives caused this to be so successful?  Is fear that powerful?  Is need for safety that powerful?  Is respect for authority that powerful?  Are those three things the unbreakable combo of behavioral control?
  • Thousands of people agreed to waive their 4th Amendment rights without an argument.  Their homes were searched relentlessly by militarized police.  This alone raises some interesting questions:

4thAmendmenttextAmongst those thousands of homes, statistically it would be impossible if many of them did not contain criminal evidence of some kind — drugs, evidence of violence or abuse, neglect, sanitation concerns, very ill people, stolen goods, etc.

On the one side, what would have happened (or what did happen that we didn’t see) if the search was refused or resisted?

On the other hand, what kind of domestic situations that otherwise might not be legally tolerated were seen by police in the course of the searches that they either a) cannot do anything about, or b) will unconstitutionally follow up on because the perceive an ongoing threat to society or the people living in the home?

Was there ANY hesitation or concern by ANY of those subjected to the searches, or ANY attempt to resist the search on Constitutional grounds?

  • Considering the lack of resistance displayed by both the participants in the detention and the onlookers (us), can we draw any conclusions about the strength of the Social Contract that secures the 4th Amendment… or even the 3rd (which we NEVER reference or use, but which actually may be historically instructive in this unique case).
  • I realize that people from all political sides shout very regularly that Americans are sheep and don’t think for themselves.  But I think this situation calls on some deeper thinking here.  Put yourself in Watertown.  How would you have reacted to the order?
  • Thinking on that, what do we now know about how simple it would be for a republic to slip the bonds of liberty and AGREE to tyranny?  Is just the right combination of fear, need for safety and respect for authority all that is needed?
  • Was the 20 hours of non-resisted detention of a major metropolitan area ONLY because of “terrorism?”  Were we observing a direct and contained result of the true power of terrorism?
  • Was the 20 hours of non-resisted detention of a major metropolitan area ALSO because of fear of the militarized police action itself?
  • I don’t know if I am unique among my audience here, but I have actually been in the middle of a militarized police action that locked down the town I was in.  This was in Northern Ireland towards the end of the Troubles.  The same sort of closed-in feeling with helicopters, tanks/saracens, military barricades and borders, searches, and quarantine.  It is scary (beyond what I can describe adequately here) and it creates PTS by simply the nature of the situation.  Now we have a major metropolitan region of millions that have the same resultant PTS.  This is similar to the the PTS that exists in Baghdad and Syria, Palestine and Israel on a regular basis.  So what behavioral modifications will occur both in the Boston area, and the rest of the country because of it (I am talking about personal and group behavior, not government policy).
  • Most likely, one clear result of the situation this week will be continued acquiescence to authority in order to secure safety over liberty.  This may not necessarily be a bad thing, depending on a person’s perspective (I am not agreeing or disagreeing) — but just for starters, I’m guessing there will be little resistance to the “London-ification” of American towns and cities.  That is, the complete and total CCTV observation of every square inch of populated area.  What does this mean for our future behavior and understanding of the 4th Amendment?


  • What legal decision had to be made to include National Guard in a policing action?  I realize that a governor is allowed to call up the NG for in-state safety/security issues.  So were they clearly kept on a “public safety” mandate so that there was no posse comitatus crossover?  How will we know? Does it matter to us?
  • How will the people subjected to the lockdown and searches change their everyday behavior in response to their understanding of those 20 hours?  Beyond PTS problems that will have to be treated, what, if any, changes have occurred or will occur in their thinking about their own personal liberty?  What about the thinking of the millions of observers who vicariously soaked in the fear and sequestration?
  • Will this type of action ever be possible again?  I’m going to assume Americans aren’t going to just pretend all of these issues don’t exist.  At least I hope there will be some discussion about these things — so will that make us just as willing the next time a city is terrorized by the possibility of continued violence and pain, to draw upon the successful conclusion of THIS detention and agree all over again to the same methods?  Or will it increase the possibility of resistance the next time and cause a disruption in the ability of authorities to insist on a suspension of normal behavior (resistance to authority)?
  • This was not undertaken in an aggressive anti-population method.  In other words, natural resistance that would occur when your ENEMY is trying to intern you (a la Wolverines!) was not present during this situation – this was done by trusted public safety organizations in the name of security.  Does that make it acceptable?
  • Boston is an incredibly multi-cultural city.  The population affected by this detention and cessation of normal activity included virtually every cultural background, immigrant group, since-the-colonies descendants, and all other mixes in between.  How did, if at all, those cultural backgrounds play into the social contract that was enacted during the detention?
  • Very clear and consistent studies show 30% of our population is authoritarian.  Meaning, there is rarely less than 30% and usually more in a large group of Americans that prefers to follow authority and do what they’re told.  So what factors contribute to increasing that to an almost 100% compliance?
  • How conditioned are we to jump to political conclusions based on a racist or anti-muslim framework (almost identical to anti-immigrant/communist framework of the 1920’s & 30’s), that we are willing to exchange our liberty and natural rights for what we perceive to be our safety?  It’s easy to judge from afar, but if we place ourselves in the midst of terror — how able are we to think independently about the nature of that terror?
  • As was made clear during the entire ordeal, the mainstream media cannot do the above (resist flying into the stereotyping, hate & fear mongering political sensationalism), so how independently are we processing information outside of what we are being told?
  • What will security forces learn from this episode that will play into future actions like this one?
  • Do we care?

In the end, the detention of the population didn’t actually work.  During the investigation phase, it was the two times that the police actually released the public to participate that significant advances were made.  Knowing now, as we do in hindsight, that the liberty of the people, with all its inherent dangers and risks, is actually more conducive to solving a situation like this than removing liberty in the name of security, will that affect our future acquiescence to the same sort of situation?

On the very first day my students took a government class with me, among other thinking questions, I asked them to choose between Security and Liberty — which instinctively was more valuable to them.  The conclusion of the course brought us to the understanding that there is a fine balance between the two in a republic, but that balance is reliant upon citizen awareness and participation.  In the end, how does this event affect that balance, if it does at all?


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