Teenager shuts down city for a week

Things have calmed down in Boston with the arrest of a 19-year-old. The city’s residents spent nearly a week glued to the news. Our flight school was effectively shut down on Thursday when President Obama came to visit. Nearly all businesses were then shut down on Friday while literally thousands of police and other armed government agents, equipped with armored cars and helicopters, searched for this teenager.

The events that started with the attack on Boston Marathon spectators and runners got me thinking about how the 21st Century seems to be the age of the individual. For most of human history the power of the individual has been limited. Unless the individual inherited, seized, was elected to, or appointed to a position of power, e.g., head of an army, state, or church, there was not much that an individual could do to disrupt society. Our century, however, started with 19 visitors to the U.S. whose actions on 9/11/2001 transformed American society to a much larger extent than any politician within memory. So far in 2013 the trend of individual power seems to have continued. A student wearing a white blanket, mistaken for a Ku Klux Klansman, managed to shut down Oberlin College for a day. And now we have two young brothers from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, not notably distinguished from their classmates, who managed to shut down a city of 3 million.

I’m wondering to what we can attribute this shift in power. It does not seem to me that guns or bombs have changed during my lifetime (I was born in 1963). Governments have become stronger rather than weaker. The typical police force in 1963 could not rely on security camera footage from thousands of sources, nor did it have a SWAT team, bulletproof vests, armored cars, or military-style rifles. If the police needed a helicopter they would have to ask the nearest Army unit to provide assistance and the Army pilots would not have night vision goggles or an infrared camera. The Internet did not exist in 1963 but nearly every American family had access to a television or radio and dramatic news was broadcast over these media.

14 thoughts on “Teenager shuts down city for a week

  1. The difference today is that “saving American lives” is not subjected to cost-benefit analysis. You see this in areas as diverse as healthcare, warfare and law enforcement.

    Friday’s lockdown may have saved one or two lives, but cost billions of dollars in lost output. That’s enough money to move the needle in areas that make the country better off at low cost: primary education, prenatal healthcare. But ever since the Baby Boom took over, no one thinks in terms of tradeoffs.

    Those born between 1945 and 1960 unconsciously assume America has infinite resources, because that was functionally true in their youth. As a result, a lack of cost-benefit analysis pervades the culture, and will do so until the next generation comes into power.

    Thankfully we’re nearing the end of this era.

  2. “Governments have become stronger rather than weaker”

    Yes, they have. Now governments can shut down cities. In 1963, they couldn’t do that. The kids didn’t shut down the city. The city government did.

  3. All of the examples you’ve given for the increase in individual power are due to other people’s reactions. Individuals haven’t gotten any more powerful with respect to being able to kill people. But an individual’s ability to terrorize people has gotten much more powerful because of changes in the the media. The Boston Marathon was a national story, not just available but inescapable for everyone in the United States. Fifty years ago it would be been a horrible event on the evening news, and then it would have been done with.
    You now got a population that has absolutely no idea how to make accurate cost-benefit analysis because they’ve got wildly inaccurate ideas of what the risks are.

  4. other way around
    “in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king”
    it is not that an individual became stronger, it is actually the opposite – we as individuals became weaker, every single one of us. we, as individual do not cooperate, we delegated and outsources many vital functions (such as self-defense or ability to build local communities) to “higher powers” and to “specialists”. we became blind so to speak. we lost the ability to form a society as a partnership of free individuals. and yes, in this situation a single one-eyed man can cause a shut-down of the entire city.

  5. This particular event might be a little more straightforward.

    Two considerations applied: (1) The perpetrators were likely to have more bombs and (2) Shutting down the city would likely severely limit their ability to move. It was something of a gamble, but a sensible one, and it paid off. We got them and they didn’t get a chance to bomb anything else.

    The reaction to 9/11/2001 on the other hand was absurd. We are still paying for it in men and treasure.

  6. Isn’t the difference simply that in 1963 this sort of thing hadn’t been done? When did the Boston police ever have occasion to shut down the whole city regardless of ability?

    Nitrates were nitrates back then but people have changed. Individuals are angrier perhaps. Maybe they feel more helpless do they react more violently. Dunno.

    Also, if we’re going to talk about cost-benefit analysis, how do you propose we assign a value to our strength as a society, or to a human life? What would the lost output be if police had exerted 1963 style effort for attacks like these? Seems like in the end most Bostonians were inconvenienced for a week and seemed pretty darn happy with the outcome on the news last night.Seems like a good trade to me.

  7. The media has much more power over the country than anyone would like to admit. These events are free ratings; free money. Many more people died in the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, but there’s no suspense or drama associated with that so it didn’t get covered.

    The media have conditioned the police, government and people to over-react to these random events which would have otherwise been extremely isolated. The wildly disproportionate attention given to these mass shooters, bombers, etc. only perpetuate more of the same behavior and even more crazed responses to such.

  8. Robert Zeh hit the nail on the head. The media has changed. If the individual has changed it is as a response to the powerful ways in which attention can be given to their behavior should it exceed the norm.

  9. 1. There are more people in the world today, therefore there are more bad people.

    2. Technology has made the world very small. We are all next door neighbors now.

    Things will continue to get worse.

  10. I wasn’t aware that the two Marathon bombers were a single individual.

    John Wilkes Booth was an individual, especially after the others he conspired with backed out. Leon Czolgosz was an individual working alone. It’s interesting that you bring up 1963, the year of Lee Harvey Oswald, although maybe I’d better not say he was an individual working alone lest I trigger a wave of responses about vast secret conspiracies.

    The Great Chicago Fire was quite disruptive (and no, it wasn’t Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow who started it, though apparently it was accidental).

    I could mention a few other people who, although part of small conspiracies, get the credit for disruption or narrowly-averted disaster. Guy Fawkes is in the narrowly-averted category and shows that even a thwarted plot can cause quite a lot of disruption.

  11. Mark: Thanks for those examples. I don’t think an assassination of the President of the United States ever had as much effect as the 9/11 attacks or even this most recent Boston Marathon attack. When JFK was killed, for example, Lyndon Johnson took over and advocated more or less the same policies that JFK had advocated (War on Poverty at home; War on Communism in Vietnam; the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_Nationality_Act_of_1965 that made it possible for the Marathon bombers to come and live in the U.S.).

    I don’t accept the Chicago fire as an act of an individual. The fundamental cause was a collective decision to build a bunch of wooden buildings in close proximity to each other and not to follow that with a carefully thought-out fire control plan.

  12. Various other factors that contributed to the widespread hysteria include:

    – willingness of the people to get government protection at *any* cost (financial cost and of other types)
    – willingness of the people to trust the government’s decisions to an incredible extent; just a few weeks ago the Massachusetts governor said that “it’s too snowy, I don’t think you should be allowed to drive – if you do I’ll give you a $500 fine – and I don’t think public transportation should be available either”, and the locals complied rather than tell him to get real!
    – vast majority of the American people willing to bear absolutely no risk and demanding the government make life risk-free; for reference see the housing market bubble and the people supporting the attempts to reinflate the prices, see the people also expecting the same central planners to “stabilize” the stock market so their 401k and other retirement plans recover, see the people expecting the government to tell the banks “not to throw Americans out of their houses” and to make loans to anybody with a pulse, regardless of their credit history and on and on and on
    – a *lot* of non-essential police and other emergency personnel eager to put in as many extra-hours as possible so they can make more money; don’t tell me that we had to have police officers guarding the intersections in commercial areas 20 miles away from where the two terrorists were fighting with police!

  13. JP writes: “Isn’t the difference simply that in 1963 this sort of thing hadn’t been done? When did the Boston police ever have occasion to shut down the whole city regardless of ability?

    Nitrates were nitrates back then but people have changed. Individuals are angrier perhaps. Maybe they feel more helpless do they react more violently. Dunno.”

    I think you should study history more closely. I believe crime & bombings are down quite a bit from earlier periods. Look at the labor movement (1870 – 1940), Anarchist’s in the first 1/3 of 20th Century, pipe bombs seemed pretty common when I was a teenager (1970s), see SDS and SLA. Another local event was the Bath School bombing, 38 dead in that, I think.

  14. I really hate the fact that Alex Simi is so correct. This state of affairs seems hopeless. It seems to be in the American dna.

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