Global Ethics Corner: Was the Boston Lockdown Justified?

Apr 29, 2013

As authorities searched for one of the Boston Marathon bombers, the city of Boston and its suburbs were put on lockdown. Was this action justified? Does this set a dangerous precedent or should we trust the government to exercise emergency powers judiciously?

After one Boston Marathon bomber was killed during an early morning shootout with police, Massachusetts put the city of Boston and some surrounding areas on lockdown for most of the next day as authorities searched for the second bomber. Boston’s mass transit system was halted, the Red Sox game was postponed, college classes were cancelled, and businesses were ordered to close. Residents were asked to “shelter in place” while armed police descended on suburban Watertown.

Bostonians voluntarily complied with the official lockdown. There were no reported arrests for defiance of the order and almost no public criticism of the decision. But was shutting down a major city and its suburbs justifiable?

The manhunt was successful; no bystanders were hurt despite several exchanges of gunfire between the suspects and police in a suburban neighborhood. But the true human cost of the shutdown may never be fully known. The region suffered hundreds of millions of dollars of lost economic output, not to mention the effect of the shutdown on low-wage and hourly workers who could little afford to lose a day’s pay.

There is no question that officials had the authority to shut down the city. Courts have long affirmed the government’s broad police powers during emergencies. Evacuation orders during natural disasters are rarely controversial. And with questions lingering during the manhunt about accomplices or more bombs in the region, public safety was certainly a consideration in Boston.

But police often search for violent criminals without shutting down an entire city. The 2008 attempted car bombing in Times Square, for instance, triggered an intense investigation, but New York City remained open for business.

When does a routine police investigation cross the line and become an emergency? Who decides? Does security trump all other considerations? Should we always simply trust public authorities to exercise emergency powers judiciously, or does the Boston manhunt suggest a dangerous precedent?

Hilary Russ and Tiziana Barghini, "Shut down for manhunt, Boston business takes a hit," Reuters, April 20, 2013

Alex Seitz-Wald, "How will the Boston shutdown affect workers?" Salon, April 22, 2013

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:
FBI [also for pictures 3, 16, & 22]
Vjeran Pavic [also for picture 11]
Jeff Cutler [also for picture 5]
Talk Radio News Service/Sally Vargas
Johannus [also for pictures 8 & 12]
U.S. Coast Guard/Adam Stanton
James Ennis [also for picture 20]
Rebecca Hildreth
U.S. Coast Guard/MyeongHi Clegg
John Hartnup
Ippei Ogiwara
Dan Nguyen
Julian Rotela Rosow
Mark Zastrow

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