A lot of people are angry, upset, or worried about the “Boston Lockdown” as a sign that Freedom Is Over. One thing almost all of these people have in common is not having been in Boston at the time. I work in information security and I’m involved with the privacy scene; I understand there’s a lot going on in America to be worried about. I’m writing this to try and explain that the police acted in good faith, they did the best job they could, and this was not, as it may have appeared from the outside, some sort of martial law terrorizing the citizenry.
I’m a resident of the Boston suburbs, who also works in the suburbs, and I occasionally make forays into the city proper. My family is from the greater Boston area, going back to the Irish immigration wave and to the Pilgrims. On Monday, when the bombs went off, I was working from home and happened to have Twitter open - I found out within seconds. After watching long enough to get confirmation from multiple sources, I sent a company-wide email to plan on not taking the trains home. I was listening to the police radio and knew they believed there to be more bombs. The fact that they turned out to not be explosive was itself immaterial; when a terror attack has been initiated, you hope your adversaries are incompetent amateurs, but act under the assumption they’re sick, twisted, and prepared to do the unthinkable.
During this time, it was clear from the police scanner that their #1 concern was getting everyone to safety and reuniting families. They remained quite calm and professional. I cheered when they broadcasted that every single one of roughly a hundred and eighty victims had arrived at a medical treatment center, about an hour into the incident.
Later that night, I hitched a ride with my boss to the heart of the city to set up for a conference called Source Boston which was to begin Tuesday at noon. The only remarkable thing about this trip was that hotel staff asked our names and checked our bags before allowing us past the lobby. Let me emphasize: this was not the police, this was private security inside a private building, and we could have refused and simply not entered the hotel. So far as I know, only the crime scene itself and portions of the subway system were under any special protection at this time.
Tuesday was an uneventful span of speculation. There were more police out and about than typical, particularly on the transit system, but no-one I met seemed to feel afraid or threatened. Someone who was speaking at the conference had their flight cancelled and couldn’t make it in time… but that was the only effect it had on us. Wednesday dragged on with rumors, only rumors. On Thursday morning there was a very strong presence of police and military with assault rifles, because the President was coming. I suspected, just as they did, that if the terrorists were planning on striking again, now was the time. We are very predictable in holding these sorts of high-profile ceremonies, so it was possible that bombing the memorial to break our national heart was the goal all along.
The President came and went without any disaster striking. Thursday night, the FBI published their official photos of the suspects, two quite ordinary-looking young men who would never be worth a second glance anywhere in Boston. This area is very international, you know - it teems with exchange students and well-educated immigrants and people who came here for a new chance at life. Every time I go to the grocery store I see families from all over the world, many apparently Muslim. The idea of being threatened by Muslims in general is absurd and I condemn anyone who assaulted or harassed someone because they appeared to be Muslim. (In a twist that upset everyone’s pet theory, the suspects turned out to be both white Americans and Muslims, though as I write this, no stated motive is available.)
The convention formally ended Thursday evening and most attendees dispersed to the winds, but a few of us were planning on staying late. Our car was parked out by Alewife Station somewhere and our friend was going to give us a ride from the hotel to the station when we were ready to go. Once again, I happened to be checking Twitter (I do that a lot) when the first reports of a shooting at MIT surfaced. No-one assumed it was the bombers: it’s a city, random shootings will happen. What people did express was frustration with stupid freaking criminals having the disrespect to cause a scene in the middle of an investigation. At this point, some of my local MIT friends ragequit Twitter and went to bed. They didn’t want to deal with the stress of murder on their campus on top of the stress of the terror investigation.
It was the point at which news of grenades hit Twitter that suddenly everything came into focus. A frenzy of attempts to confirm that it was in fact a detonation and not some random city noise was settled when people I knew and trusted said they heard several small explosions from their house. I went around and told everyone still chilling at the conference not to leave the hotel, because some nutjob who may or not be a marathon bomber was armed and dangerous and running around with nothing to lose. Mainstream media was in bed; we only had the radio and eyewitnesses over social media. We (the waking Twitter population) by and large understood that this was not 100% reliable. Boston is not much of an after-midnight city to begin with, so there was hardly anyone on the streets to worry about. I remember seeing a pizza delivery truck rolling by well after the violence in progress had been declared to be the bombers making their getaway. I hope they got a nice tip.
Several of us ended up getting a few rooms at two in the morning and crashing instead of going home, since it was abundantly clear that the remaining bomber was armed and dangerous. Boston is a surprisingly small area, incredibly dense and mazelike, and much more easily navigated by bike or on foot than with cars. Staying inside if you have the option is not cowardice or foolishness in such a situation, it’s practical. The bombers had already murdered one person, shot up another, and kidnapped someone before kicking them out of their own car. The younger one was so panicked that he had run over his own brother’s body trying to get away from the cops. It’s completely irresponsible to be outside and make yourself a target for hostage-taking by a desperate terrorist unless you have a truly compelling reason.
I took a sleeping pill because there were sirens everywhere; I have a good ear for them. The last thing I remember is that my manager, who lives in Watertown, was barricaded inside his house by the police to keep him from being taken hostage. To my understanding the police communicated with him and this was by consent. A widespread misconception I saw on Twitter is that SWAT teams were running around and breaking into people’s houses and ransacking them. I haven’t seen a single report of this from a local! The worst I heard is that they opened exterior basement doors and sheds. They knocked on doors and asked if people would like their houses checked. It’s not like the police assumed anyone was deliberately sheltering the terrorist. Now, I am not going to make a blanket statement that not one single breach of respect happened. Thousands of people were involved, there was probably at least one. Just let me emphasize: the police made every effort to not screw this up and not terrorize people. The documented incidents make sense in context: there was unambiguously an armed and dangerous maniac somewhere in Watertown. Some police forces we shall not name would probably have racked up seven or eight civilian shootings and burned down a couple houses. While it’s really quite pathetic that we’re pleasantly surprised when this doesn’t happen, well, it didn’t happen. Hooray.
I woke up at 11am on Friday and my first action was to post on Twitter asking what I needed to know before I got out of bed. The answer?: “Don’t bother, go back to sleep. They’re still looking for him and everything’s closed.” It became clear that something called “shelter in place” was going on. This is the “lockdown” everyone heard about. Let me emphasize this very clearly: this was NOT a lockdown in the classical sense. People were on the sidewalks. Cars were on the streets. Just not very many. No cops or soldiers were running around bothering people outside of the immediate vicinity of Watertown. The idea that the entire city shut down simply isn’t true. Restaurants and shops and other assorted businesses were mostly closed, but this was by choice of the operators to heed the call to do so. It was, by and large, a surprise holiday; the park near the hotel was actually quite crowded.
The hotel kindly allowed us to delay checkout, and mid-afternoon we were able to find a taxi driver willing to take us all the way to Alewife Station, which itself was completely closed. Our car was severely overdue on the parking time limit, and this will probably be the only time in our lives we escape the watchful eye of the meter police. We actually passed through a corner of Watertown on the way home, which was alive and well.
A lot of people are concerned about the cost to the city of Boston that the lockdown incurred. Two points: first, we have severe weather incidents every year with similar effects on business, and our economy doesn’t collapse; second, pretty much every single last person in the greater Boston area would personally sign the check paid out of our taxes to see the marathon bombers taken off the streets. We wanted this. We wanted to facilitate the investigation and we wanted those prepared to deal with an armed terrorist checking the hidey-holes in our neighborhoods, which was exactly where Suspect #2 was found. It is better that the trained negotiators handled it than the private citizens, because let me tell you, the city is filled with people who wouldn’t have hesitated to beat him to death with their bare tattooed hands, and it is important for both human rights and for the investigation that he was taken alive. I regret that the older brother has died but, fittingly, it seems to have been the younger brother’s fault anyway.
Some people feel that Boston has failed to “refuse to be terrorized.” Let me make something clear: being cautious during an ongoing terror attack (even a relatively small one such as this) is not a shameful thing, it’s common sense. “Being terrorized” would be if we cancelled next year’s marathon. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. “Being terrorized” would be if we ceased to be a welcoming home for people from all over the world. That had better not happen, and I don’t think it will.
Incidents where a few people die and many are injured happen all the time even in America - the Texas explosion seems timed by fate to remind us of this. It’s true, we don’t make it an issue for every single person in a city every time three or four people are murdered. In this case, the people of Boston chose to make it their issue. This attack was extremely personal. We responded in kind. This was not a city driven by fear. This was a city driven by a keen and righteous fury. We absolutely will not tolerate anyone attacking the heart of our culture. We’re not worried about the monetary cost of bringing everything to a screeching halt to make sure there is no possibility of escape. There are a lot of Bostonians, we can keep this up longer than our handful of cowardly enemies can.
Finally, those of you who watched from a distance: thank you for your attention, your concern, and your outpouring of support. However, if you are worried that this was “normalization of the police state,” let me assure you there was nothing “normal” about this. Our governor is not signing some sort of order to turn Boston into a rights-free zone on account of two kids with a pressure cooker. I know it’s freaky to see photos of armed troops in an American neighborhood, but that’s just it - it’s freaky. It’s unusual. There was a very specific reason for it and the locals wanted them there and they’ve packed up because the mission is over. I know we in infosec are paid to be paranoid but thinking that this was a “dry run” for some sort of coup is a little over the top even for us.
Now is a good time to reflect on the fact that in some parts of the world, none of this would have seemed remarkable. There are entire countries worn down by constant petty terrorism. Dozens of innocent people have died in bombings abroad during this investigation.
I think Boston’s reaction is a key component of keeping it unusual in our country. Zero tolerance for terrorism.
This is the city which would not be cowed by the wrath of an empire. We won that war. We will not be cowed by you, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and we will be victorious over hatred, fear, and senseless violence.
Boston is my ancestral home. I came back after living far away for half of my life. I’m so glad I did.