security theater, martial law, and a tale that trumps every cop-and-donut joke you've ever heard
First, just in case it's not utterly obvious, I'm glad that the two murderous cowards who attacked civilians in Boston recently are off the streets. One dead and one in custody is a great outcome.
That said, a large percent of the reaction in Boston has been security theater. "Four victims brutally killed" goes by other names in other cities.
In Detroit, for example, they call it "Tuesday".
…and Detroit does not shut down every time there are a few murders.
"But Clark," I hear you say, "this is different. This was a terrorist attack."
Washington DC, during ongoing sniper terrorist attacks in 2002 that killed twice as many people, was not shut down.
Kileen Texas, after the Fort Hood terrorist attack in 2009 that killed three times as many people, was not shut down.
London, after the bombing terrorist attack in 2005 that killed more than ten times as many people, was not shut down.
"But Clark," I hear you asking, "what about the lives saved?"
There is no evidence that any lives were saved by the Boston shutdown.
"Yeah, but you can't know for sure!"
True. I can't. But in London, Washington, LA after the El Al shootings, and so on and so on and so on, there were not lockdowns, and there were no further fatalities. It's not perfect proof, but it's suggestive.
"Then why the hell do you care, Clark?"
First, the unprecendented shutdown of a major American city may have increased safety some small bit, but it was not without a cost: keeping somewhere between 2 and 5 million people from work, shopping, and school destroyed a nearly unimaginable amount of value. If we call it just three million people, and we peg the cost at a mere $15 per person per hour, the destroyed value runs to a significant fraction of a billion dollars.
"Yeah, maybe…but in this day and age where the federal government is borrowing an extra $3.85 billion per day, a couple of hundred million doesn't sound like much. After all, if we're borrowing money that our children and grandchildren will have to pay back to fund Cowboy Poetry Festival and military golf courses, then what's another $200 or $400 million to keep people safe?"
I've got multiple answers:
First, just because you're already two hundred pounds overweight doesn't mean that another bowl of ice cream won't hurt you. It will.
Second, the cost isn't just measured in dollars – it's measured in the degree to which it trains a population to freak out over minor risk and to trust blindly in authorities.
Third, keeping citizens off the street meant that 99% of the eyes and brains that might solve a crime were being wasted. Eric S Raymond famously said that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". It was thousands of citizen photographs that helped break this case, and it was a citizen who found the second bomber. Yes, that's right – it wasn't until the stupid lock-down was ended that a citizen found the second murderer:
The boat’s owners, a couple, spent Friday hunkered down under the stay-at-home order. When it was lifted early in the evening, they ventured outside for some fresh air and the man noticed the tarp on his boat blowing in the wind, according to their his son, Robert Duffy.
The cords securing it had been cut and there was blood near the straps.
We had thousands of police going door-to-door, searching houses…and yet not one of them saw the evidence that a citizen did just minutes after the lock-down ended.
"But Clark," you protest, "you may not trust the government to decide what's risky and what's not, but I do. If it saves even one life, then shutting down a major city is the right move. That's obvious!"
But the Boston police didn't shut down an entire city. They shut down an entire city except for the donut shops.
Law enforcement asked Dunkin' Donuts to keep restaurants open in locked-down communities to provide… food to police… including in Watertown, the focus of the search for the bombing suspect.
The government and police were willing to shut down parts of the economy like the universities, software, biotech, and manufacturing…but when asked to do an actual risk to reward calculation where a small part of the costs landed on their own shoulders, they had no problem weighing one versus the other and then telling the donut servers "yeah, come to work – no one's going to get shot."
And they were right.