After law enforcement officials killed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and arrested his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one month ago today, everyone agreed that the police were heroes. In Watertown, the site of Dzhokhar’s arrest, people filled the streets and cheered at every police vehicle that passed. Crowds packed the streets and Boston Common, yelling, chanting, and waving flags in jubilation. Facebook, Twitter, and even the news media were awash with people expressing their gratitude and thankfulness to the law enforcement officers who “stood up to the terrorists” and risked their lives to keep everyone safe.
This might sound blasphemous and even unpatriotic, but I have to say that I do not agree with this attitude. In their concern about safety, too many people have forgotten about liberty. I don’t want to discredit the courage of the first responders and bystanders who risked their lives to help those injured in the bombing, or to take away from the fact that cops risk their lives every day while enforcing the law. But the law enforcement response to the Boston bombing, characterized (correctly) by many libertarian commentators as martial law, was nothing to celebrate.
In the aftermath of the bombing and the hunt for the suspects, police acted wrongly, violating people’s rights in several ways.
The “lockdown” has been a subject of much discussion. Was it really necessary to shut down an entire city, its surrounding suburbs, and its public transportation system for a day? The answer is probably no. But although this robbed businesses of a day of economic productivity, the fact that the city shut down was not itself a great violation of individual rights.
What was a violation of individual rights was the fact that in their pursuit of the younger Tsarnaev, the cops searched hundreds of people’s houses with no warrant and no probable cause. They forced people to leave their homes at gunpoint, without giving them any time to change clothes or collect their belongings. Worse, according to a Boston Globe article detailing the hunt for the suspects, “anyone up and about in the early morning hours was searched by police.” And worst of all, according to the same article:
“At 1:16 a.m., the police came across a man who seemed suspicious. They stripped his clothes off and briefly cuffed him before they learned he lived on the street.”
Yes, that’s right. The police strip searched a completely innocent person who had nothing to do with the bombing. That is completely unacceptable. Making it even worse, the Globe article mentions this in passing, as if it is inconsequential. Elsewhere on the Internet, I’ve seen brief references to “naked guy” either as a source of humor or in connection with conspiracy theories. In a firsthand account of the Watertown lockdown, Jim Sullivan nonchalantly mentions this as a minor detail: “A man was on the ground on Upland Road, many rifles aimed at his head. He was taken into custody, stripped naked. It wasn’t him.” The New Yorker describes in horrific terms how the cops screamed curse words at this person, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, donned flak jackets, took up sniper rifles, and ordered him to “drop your underwear.” Yet this publication had the audacity to call the victim “lucky enough not to end up seriously hurt.”
The news media has either ignored this completely unwarranted, unjustified strip search, or treated it as perfectly fine. As far as I know, no one has apologized to this individual or compensated him in any way. Forcing a person to strip naked against their will is not only a blatant violation of human dignity, privacy, and the Fourth Amendment, but is a form of sexual assault. The public should be outraged that police officers sexually assaulted an innocent person. Yet no one seems to care.
Another thing that I do not agree with was the extent of the jubilation when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured. I get that people would be happy that the alleged terrorist was caught and that the justice system can run its course. I get that people would feel relieved to be free of any danger that might be posed by an alleged terrorist on the loose. But people reacted as if the alleged terrorists were some powerful enemy and the police were the underdogs. That simply does not make sense.
After Dzhokhar made his getaway from the gunfight that killed his older brother Tamerlan – the same gunfight in which cops riddled neighbors’ houses and cars with bullets and nearly killed their own comrade, Transit Police Officer Richard Donohue – thousands of law enforcement officials from federal, state, and local governments assembled in Boston with kevlar body armor, tanks, helicopters, and machine guns. Watching the news footage of hundreds and hundreds of cops gathering at Arsenal Mall in Watertown, it seemed as if Godzilla must have attacked the city, or an army was invading. But no. The legions of FBI agents, SWAT teams, special tactical units, and paramilitary troops were hunting for a wounded, bleeding, unarmed 19-year-old boy who turned out to be hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard. The fact that they captured Dzhokhar was not at all surprising; in fact it was surprising that he eluded capture for as long as he did. He had no chance.
Looking at this picture of Dzhokhar being arrested, I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this is something to cheer and wave flags about. If anything, this picture makes me feel bad for Dzhokhar. Yes, he is an alleged terrorist, and at the time, no one knew whether he was armed or had a suicide vest on him. But the police reaction was absolutely overkill, like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant. The fact that the government unleashed such an extreme display of force against an injured teenager is ridiculous and should embarrass whoever came up with the idea.
As criminal defense lawyer Geoffrey Fieger told the Boston Herald, “He’s been denied the right to a fair trial. And America’s …cheering like it was some kind of sporting event. That wasn’t a very flattering image to the rest of the world. Cheering like they won the World Series.”
I can understand why people might feel relieved or content that the police had done their job. But the extent of the celebrations was not classy and did not fit what happened. There is something disturbing about seeing mobs of people cheering and worshiping the government agents who violated their liberty. It is sad that the people of greater Boston feel more threatened by a lone, injured alleged terrorist than they do by an army of cops invading their homes and in some cases their bodies. Ron Paul wrote that this imposition of martial law “should frighten us as much or more than the attack itself.” I completely agree with him.
I consider myself a very patriotic person, so it’s hard to criticize crowds of people who filled the streets in the middle of the night, waving American flags. But America was founded on the ideal of individual rights and freedom. An army of government agents hunting down two fugitives and trampling on innocent people in the process is not what America should be about.