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.