Shelter in place

WARNING: This commentary has more or less nothing to do with video games.

It was an interesting week here at LGR East in Greater Boston, one unfortunately not very productive for the business, as all of the time we’d normally spend playing and reviewing video games has been taken up with listening to continuing live coverage of the Marathon Bomber Manhunt Manqué. The good news is that this has filled me with a desire to play lots of video games again; at one particularly low point I remember thinking to myself, “Gosh, we were hard on Game of Thrones. It wasn’t so depressing really.” The bad news is that right now I have nothing to talk about other than the same shit everyone else is talking about.

Locked Down–and Out

For the better part of Friday, April 19, most of America’s ninth-largest metropolitan area was under lockdown, also known–following the odd police/military penchant for creating special jargon for things that the lay language expresses perfectly well–as “shelter in place.” Bloomberg Businessweek ballparks the cost at $333 million in lost business, plus lord only knows how much in direct costs for the 57 varieties of police on hand. Surely it would be churlish to complain of the expense if these measures had been necessary and effective. They were neither.

Naturally one can’t object to emergency measures in the immediate aftermath of a dangerous incident: it made sense to temporarily lock down a section of Watertown after Tsarnaev escaped police. Fine. But the expansion of the lockdown to an area comprising almost 30 square miles, and its extension through 12 hours, was absurd. It was simultaneously an admission that the authorities had lost track of the suspect; and the removal from the search of hundreds of thousands of people who knew exactly what he looked like. Law enforcement should have wound up the lockdown quickly after its initial failure, instead of metastasizing it.

It’s notable, as a matter of fact, that Tsarnaev was finally located after the “shelter in place” order was lifted, to the barely-concealed surprise of law enforcement. What’s the story? Well, as soon as people could leave the house, someone left the house, saw something hinky in the now-infamous backyard boat, and called the cops. Local people are obviously more attuned to their surroundings than zillions of cops imported from hither and yon, and more capable of exercising proper vigilance–as opposed to overreaction and wolf-crying–when appealed to.

The lockdown was thus not an “apolitical” technical measure, but a deeply ideological intervention emanating from the state. It reflects, among probably all sorts of other things, the spirit of pseudo-professional authoritarianism, the idea that the public is hapless and hopeless and best kept out of the way while the “pros” endeavor to “take care of things.” The really amusing thing about this notion is that it’s so obviously wrong: compare the really magnificent self-organization, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice coming “from below” in the on-the-ground response to the Marathon bombing versus the serial bungling of the officialdom and “leading” national media outlets like CNN (who became, with great if unintentional patriotism, the nation’s most trusted name in comic relief).

The mutual failure of the state and press authorities is perhaps best indicated by the shenanigans of Wednesday, when thoroughly false press reports about the arrest of “dark-skinned males” culminated in a totally pointless crowd gathered at Boston’s federal courthouse, subsequently dispersed by a (fake) bomb threat–all while the FBI called, then postponed, then canceled, one press conference after another. The risible performance of the media has been rightly mocked, but the role of the officialdom in it has been scrutinized too little. The sensationalism of CNN–not to mention the openly pogromist “journalism” of the New York Post–is execrable, but at least has a sort of vulgar huckster-capitalist rationale. What of the officials who are supposed to look out for the general interests of “society,” even in the most bourgeois sense? It seems that their storied, stolid professionalism melts at the main chance to look like a big, important player to Fran Townsend.

An amusing aspect of the “technocratic” ideology today is that power is increasingly exercised by dumbasses with no particular technical skill. For example, financial matters are commonly thought to be beyond the ken of all but financial specialists. Yet as anyone who attended an elite university knows, financiers were by and large the least intelligent and enterprising students (save for the “quants” who have negligible social influence). Similarly, public safety policy is put under the control of the state security apparatus–notoriously staffed, in this nation as every other, by dimwits incapable of either understanding the past or anticipating the future. The fear that democracy would lead to rule by the transparently ignorant, even if it were true–and it is demonstrably not–would be a lesser evil to what we have now: rule by the opaquely ignorant, by people who think they know what they’re doing.

Persons of Uninterest

Just before the discovery of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pushed everything else off the radar, Bob Orr of CBS News reported the following remarkable tidbit: Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been interviewed by the FBI two years ago. Even more remarkable, the report turned out to be correct; after initially denying it, the agency officially confirmed it. According to John Miller of CBS News:

The FBI is likely to have run a background check, running his name through all the relevant databases, including those of other agencies, checking on his communications and all of his overseas travel. Miller reports that culminated in a sit-down interview where they probably asked him a lot of questions about his life, his contacts, his surroundings. All of this was then written in a report and sent it [sic] to the requesting government.

Forget the implication that the FBI should have found “incriminating information” in the interview; almost certainly neither Tsarnaev was doing anything illegal at the time. But how is it that the elder brother was not immediately identified even after his picture was broadcast in the national press? No one, not a single vaunted “G-Man,” looked at the photo and thought, “Oh snap, that looks like that guy I interviewed about being a terrorist a couple years back”? Don’t they have the Internet at Quantico?

In the face of such jaw-dropping blunders, police like to claim that they would do better if their “hands weren’t tied” (by, you know, laws and stuff). In truth, the problem is precisely the opposite: especially since 9/11, police “hands” are much too free, resulting in thousands of interviews of people–mostly immigrants–who have done, are doing, and will do nothing. This boring and pointless work is likely fobbed off on the most junior and/or dull-witted agents, who conduct it as a pro forma exercise, which it manifestly is. The interview subjects never enter into any system in the mind; hence they can’t be recalled in the (vastly unlikely) event that they wind up being criminals. Indeed, the FBI’s counter-terrorism program has consisted largely in the “prevention” of terrorism initiated by the FBI itself–an easier “get,” certainly, even if the net effect on publicly safety is, in the ideal case, zero. (As for the less-than-ideal case, consider the possibility that the FBI’s involvement with the Tsarnaev family, apparently at Russia’s request, actually aggravated any violent feelings Tamerlan might have held towards American society.)

Once the bombers’ identity had been revealed–by, I suppose, the advanced investigative technique of riffling through the dead Tamerlan’s wallet–their backgrounds became a subject of intense speculation. These proceeded along roughly two lines, as noted by Adam Gopnik in a brilliant article for the New Yorker. On TV and radio news, any two-bit “expert” able to deploy some half-digested Chechnya factoids could spout off about possible links to “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Northern Caucuses” or whatever. On the web–which presents such a threat to careful, “professional” journalism, don’t you know–amateur sleuths had within hours uncovered the Tsarnaevs’ not-unsubstantial Internet presence, putting together a picture of an older brother drawn into religious politics by a dark melange of frustrations with American life and anger over the fate of his people; and a younger brother dragged into the older man’s void.

Now both sets of theses are speculative; but there is speculation and speculation. There is speculation based on the nation’s carefully-licked neuroses and amour propre; and there is speculation based on what the suspects actually said and did. Based on the latter, one might have concluded that Dzhokhar without Tamerlan was, while far from harmless, lost and disoriented–and perhaps willing to listen. That is, I think, what the pathetic final confrontation suggested. For what did we see? A man barely past a boy, his life forfeit with the lives he made forfeit, bleeding and alone where he apparently lay all day: in a wintered boat outwith the water.

Persons of Uninterest

Just before the discovery of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pushed everything else off the radar, Bob Orr of CBS News reported the following remarkable tidbit: Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been interviewed by the FBI two years ago. Even more remarkable, the report turned out to be correct; after initially denying it, the agency officially confirmed it. According to John Miller of CBS News:

The FBI is likely to have run a background check, running his name through all the relevant databases, including those of other agencies, checking on his communications and all of his overseas travel. Miller reports that culminated in a sit-down interview where they probably asked him a lot of questions about his life, his contacts, his surroundings. All of this was then written in a report and sent it [sic] to the requesting government.

Forget the implication that the FBI should have found “incriminating information” in the interview; almost certainly neither Tsarnaev was doing anything illegal at the time. But how is it that the elder brother was not immediately identified even after his picture was broadcast in the national press? No one, not a single vaunted “G-Man,” looked at the photo and thought, “Oh snap, that looks like that guy I interviewed about being a terrorist a couple years back”? Don’t they have the Internet at Quantico?

In the face of such jaw-dropping blunders, police like to claim that they would do better if their “hands weren’t tied” (by, you know, laws and stuff). In truth, the problem is precisely the opposite: especially since 9/11, police “hands” are much too free, resulting in thousands of interviews of people–mostly immigrants–who have done, are doing, and will do nothing. This boring and pointless work is likely fobbed off on the most junior and/or dull-witted agents, who conduct it as a pro forma exercise, which it manifestly is. The interview subjects never enter into any system in the mind; hence they can’t be recalled in the (vastly unlikely) event that they wind up being criminals. Indeed, the FBI’s counter-terrorism program has consisted largely in the “prevention” of terrorism initiated by the FBI itself–an easier “get,” certainly, even if the net effect on publicly safety is, in the ideal case, zero. (As for the less-than-ideal case, consider the possibility that the FBI’s involvement with the Tsarnaev family, apparently at Russia’s request, actually aggravated any violent feelings Tamerlan might have held towards American society.)

Once the bombers’ identity had been revealed–by, I suppose, the advanced investigative technique of riffling through the dead Tamerlan’s wallet–their backgrounds became a subject of intense speculation. These proceeded along roughly two lines, as noted by Adam Gopnik in a brilliant article for the New Yorker. On TV and radio news, any two-bit “expert” able to deploy some half-digested Chechnya factoids could spout off about possible links to “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Northern Caucuses” or whatever. On the web–which presents such a threat to careful, “professional” journalism, don’t you know–amateur sleuths had within hours uncovered the Tsarnaevs’ not-unsubstantial Internet presence, putting together a picture of an older brother drawn into religious politics by a dark melange of frustrations with American life and anger over the fate of his people; and a younger brother dragged into the older man’s void.

Now both sets of theses are speculative; but there is speculation and speculation. There is speculation based on the nation’s carefully-licked neuroses and amour propre; and there is speculation based on what the suspects actually said and did. Based on the latter, one might have concluded that Dzhokhar without Tamerlan was, while far from harmless, lost and disoriented–and perhaps willing to listen. That is, I think, what the pathetic final confrontation suggested. For what did we see? A man barely past a boy, his life forfeit with the lives he made forfeit, bleeding and alone where he apparently lay all day: in a wintered boat outwith the water.

Ennui Are One

For those of us who had the historically necessary but personally unfortunate experience of being a principled leftist in the aftermath of 9/11, I suppose the instinct is to gird one’s loins and prepare for a repeat of the warmongering chauvinist hootenanny. I am not sure if that is entirely right. In the first place, if your loins are anything like mine, they’ve been girded continuously for the last ten-odd years, and could scarcely be more so without risking loss of function. More importantly, I don’t think the response has been the same, either “from above” or “from below.”

Yes, we’ve seen the braying of racist donkeys in the dregs of the Twitterverse–assuming, in the spirit of generosity, that there is some non-dregs portion of Twitter–but it’s notable that it comes to our attention via a Tumblr dedicated to humiliating racist numbnuts. A Palestinian woman in a hijab was assaulted while walking with her infant daughter in Malden, MA–but this called forth the condemnation of the mayor, who is officially sponsoring an interfaith peace vigil. The president managed to keep himself from exhorting the citizenry through a bullhorn at ground zero; nor does there seem to be any official speculation about which countries ought to be invaded. None of this exactly raises us to the level of a civilized nation, but compared to 9/11….

Why this relative–and I stress relative–restraint in rhetoric? Of course the Marathon bombing was far less damaging and deadly than 9/11, but the size of a terrorist attack does not much delimit its political use. I’m also not inclined to credit President Obama’s “peace-loving” nature (har har). What I see, rather, is a weary unwillingness to recapitulate the post-9/11 political sequence, which after all launched the United States into two long, expensive, and losing war-occupations. Only a fool would want to start another war now; and while America has never suffered from a deficit of foolishness, there are limits even to her abundant stores.

Obama’s assumption of office was greeted as a history-making break with the policies of the Bush administration. In fact Obama has continued the policies of Bush, except to the extent that the latter aimed at making history. The kernel of truth in the pained howlings of the neocons is that the bulk of the American elite indeed no longer sees the maintenance of its hegemony as a dynamic process of actively shaping the world; but rather a “realist” project of keeping things going the way they are going, with a handful–or possibly lots–of drone “kinetics” to remind the world to color inside the lines.

Therefore I don’t expect to see widespread chauvinism, or more precisely, chauvinism of a character that suggests war abroad. The celebrations following the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, while not where I would have wanted to be, shouldn’t be read as uncomplicated right-wing manifestations. Sentiments of “woohoo, they got the bastard!” were imbricated with feelings of “woohoo, we can finally go outside!” and even “woohoo, they didn’t kill him!” Everyone in or around Boston felt immense relief after Tsarnaev’s arrest, and it’s not surprising that many wanted to go have fun in a crowd.

I am not trying to teach you to stop worrying; rather I am saying to worry less about what might happen, and to worry more about what has. As is typically the case, the most radical possibility is not a thoroughly new direction, but the repetition of an “accident” that already occurred. “By repetition that which at first appeared as merely a matter of chance and contingency, becomes a real and ratified existence.” The Great Boston Lockdown was a screwball event, a kind of Saints Row mission pack where you could only be an NPC. Let it happen once or twice more without organized opposition, and it becomes the New Normal.

Next time, don’t shelter in place.

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