Field of Science

Some thoughts on the events around Boston

We were enjoying a quiet evening of music and reading on Thursday when my wife alerted me to a message she got from the MIT emergency system that there had been a shooting somewhere on the campus. A while later we came to know that a police officer had been shot and killed right in front of my wife's department. After making sure that folks we knew from MIT were safe, we stayed awake for about two more hours reading the news updates. By the time we went to sleep we had found out that there was a connection between the shooting of the MIT police officer - a promising young man who later tragically died - and the Boston marathon bombing.

When we woke up the next day the situation was a little surreal: "Has Boston turned into Baghdad?", a friend tweeted. The police had pursued the two bombing suspects into the neighboring suburb of Watertown where there had been a terrific firefight. One suspect died (died, as it turned out, because his brother ran him over) and his brother escaped. By the time we woke up in Cambridge, Watertown was already in lockdown and police were getting ready for house to house searches within a 20 block perimeter.

Then we heard that Boston and a few of its suburbs - roughly an area comprising a million inhabitants - were in lockdown and all residents had been asked to stay at home. I thought then and I still think that this was an overreaction. Watertown, where the suspect was thought to be hiding? Sure. But Boston, Cambridge, Belmont, Newton and four others? A little over the top in my opinion. I understand that many people stayed home out of deference to authorities' wishes to be able to do their job unfettered. It's also ok to ask residents to be vigilant and to venture out at their own risk, but we do this anyway. Every time we are out we run the risk of being in a traffic accident. I suspect that this risk in a random suburb which is not Watertown is probably higher than  a 19 year-old fanatic suffering blood loss coming out of the blue with guns blazing and shooting at you. Now I understand that the police did not force people to stay indoors but they were also quite emphatic about this; I watched a woman who stepped out in the middle of the day to walk her dog being emphatically told to stay inside by two officers out on patrol.

The huge police presence in Watertown also seemed like an overreaction to me. By one account there were 9000 local, state, and federal authorities looking for this kid. Armored vehicles patrolled the streets, and I am not sure what additional purpose they would have served. Sure, the authorities were erring on the side of safety and they were clearly anxious to apprehend the suspect as soon as possible, but I think it's constitutionally healthy to be skeptical when your whole neighborhood resembles a war zone and armed officers wielding every kind of weapon perform intrusive house searches.

For me the ultimate irony may be that this guy was located - not by one of the 9000 officers and military personnel - but by an ordinary citizen. In a boat in an area that was not part of the 20 block perimeter. After the lockdown order had been rescinded.

What happened there? I know that hindsight is always twenty-twenty but here's something that bothers me: From what I read it seems that the spectacular shootout occurred at the intersection of Laurel St and Dexter Ave in Watertown. The suspect was found hiding in the boat at 67 Franklin St. If you look at these locations on Google Maps they are less than a mile apart. For all the meticulous house-to-house searches and lockdowns, why did the perimeter not include a location that was less than a mile from where the shootout took place? And most importantly, how could the police miss the boat, a large, roomy object that's ideal for a human being to hide? Can you say that your operation was really successful when an ordinary citizen locates a suspect only after you are done with house-to-house searches? So on one hand there seemed to be an overreaction and on the other, the meticulous operation seems to have been unsuccessful in its primary purpose.

I understand that there were a lot of police officers and other personnel who immersed themselves into this investigation. Many of them had not slept in 24 hours and they were clearly committed to finding this guy as soon as possible. These people clearly did an admirable job and we should applaud their dedication. But in my opinion there seem to be a few important clues that were missed, and discussing these clues is not only an important part of a healthy democracy where public officials are answerable to the public but also a part of any system of self-improvement and feedback where you learn from your mistakes. Most importantly though, when a 19 year-old nutjob brings a major American city to a standstill, makes it resemble a state with martial law and makes people stay put in their houses and away from their jobs in anxiety, if not fear, the terrorists have already won (as the cliche goes, in this case because it's true). As Ben Franklin memorably put it, if you sacrifice freedom for security you risk losing both. And the key here is to realize that this sacrifice may not even be forced upon you by the state; it can be entirely self-imposed.

At 5 PM I grew really restless and decided to go outside to get some milk (I need my morning coffee fix, terrorist scares be damned). Everything except for one convenience store was closed. Parking on Massachusetts Ave never looked better. The next day we went to the Esplanade along the Charles River. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Something about fear being the only thing we should truly fear came to my mind.


  1. the other problem is that this also produced a huge amount of publicity.

    Of course, I do not know what actually motivates a person to attack innocent people. But I guess the prospect of shutting down a whole city and being in the news for days is part of the motivation ...

    1. Yes, the point about publicity is important. The publicity leads such rare events with relatively low casualty rates (relative to many other incidents involving loss of life) to be sensationalized and overemphasized at the expense of other more frequent and thus more important ones.

  2. Didn't know you'd married. Congratulations ! ! ! !



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