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Sirens and Silence

Is consensual lockdown a good thing?

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More than 50 years ago, Jane Jacobs used the phrase “eyes on the street” to describe what she thought of as the city’s essential safety measure. What she had in mind was a distinctly low-tech, but efficiently crowd-sourced security apparatus: grandmothers leaning out of second-story windows, shopkeepers glancing through display windows, alert kids killing time on a brownstone stoop. The Boston Marathon bombing updated the idea of collective surveillance: Thousands of people, peaceably gathered on a public street, witnessed—and recorded—the minutes before and after the blast, which quickly helped the police identify the suspects.

The manhunt that followed popularized another phrase, “shelter in place,” which for a while produced exactly the sort of city Jacobs was warning against: vacant, shuttered, and still. Residents of a peacetime metropolis locked themselves in and hunkered down, leaving the streets to the military and the police, as if the Boston area were suddenly under martial law. Apart from a few enterprising (or maybe the word is foolish) souls who went out for walks and reported back, several million people voluntarily suspended their freedom to move around, on the assumption that it would soon be restored.

The ability to go virtually anywhere at any time is the core of the urban experience. A marathon is, among other things, a proud demonstration of joyous movement through safe city streets, and the bombing was an attack on that basic freedom. The all-out pursuit of the suspects showed how quickly and efficiently a modern city could flip a safety switch, shutting down the entire urban machine with the aid and acquiescence of its population. The authorities used old-fashioned methods to urge everyone to stay home, stringing up crime-scene tape, passing out leaflets, and holding press conferences. But the word also whizzed around on Twitter and Facebook, along with eerie pictures of empty streets, mostly taken through windows. On Monday, the bombers tried to paralyze the city. A few days later, with one suspect dead and the other on the run, they succeeded.

This is new. Other cities around the world—Jerusalem during the various intifadas, Rome in the Years of Lead, London during the Troubles—recovered from bombings and searched for terrorists while life kept flowing all around. Bustle is an antidote to ghastliness. It keeps frightened people sane. The great Boston lockdown shows that in an emergency, an organized bureaucracy, a well-trained law-enforcement apparatus, and social media, can work together to cause a city to stop working at all.

Even as SWAT teams and armored vehicles patrolled hushed neighborhoods, the implications of consensual lockdown started to look disturbing. Suddenly, it seemed, Boston had handed a lone teenager the power to force everyone indoors; would others watch and crave it too? The longer-term implications of shutting down Boston are troubling, as well. If we come to accept the notion that the best way to protect a city is to keep it clear, then we will have abridged our own freedom of assembly.

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