Everyday life in the United States is still semi-free most of the time, if one goes about one’s own business and avoids flying or crossing the border. Yet, the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings of April 15, 2013, showed all too clearly that totalitarianism does not need decades of incremental legislation and regimentation to come to this country. All it needs is the now-pervasive fear of “terrorism” – a fear which can give one man the power to shut down the economic life of an entire city for a day.
The annual Gross Domestic Product of Boston is approximately $326 billion (based on 2011 figures from the Wall Street Journal). For one day, Boston’s GDP can be roughly estimated as ($326 billion)/365 = $893.15 million. Making the rather conservative assumption that only about half of a city’s economic activity would require people to leave their homes in any way, one can estimate the economic losses due to the Boston lockdown to be around $447 million. By contrast, how much damaged property and medical costs resulted directly from the criminal act committed by the Chechen nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist brothers Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev? An NBC News article detailing the economic damages from the bombing estimates total medical costs to be in excess of $9 million, while total losses within the “impact zone” designated by the Boston Police Department are about $10 million. To give us a wide margin of error again, let us double these estimates and assume that the bombers inflicted total economic damage of $38 million. The economic damage done by the lockdown would still exceed this total by a factor of about 11.76 – more than an order of magnitude!
It is true, of course, that the cost in terms of the length and quality of life for the three people killed and the 264 people injured by the bombings cannot be accounted for in monetary terms. But I wonder: how many years of life will $447 million in lost economic gains deprive from the population of Boston put together – especially when one considers that these economic losses affect life-sustaining sectors such as medical care and pharmaceuticals? Furthermore, to what extent would this lost productivity forestall the advent of future advances that could have lengthened people’s lives one day sooner? One will most likely never know, but the reality of opportunity cost is nonetheless always with us, and surely, some massive opportunity costs were incurred during the Boston lockdown. Moreover, one type of damage does not justify or excuse another. However horrific the Boston bombings were, they were not a reason to further hinder innocent people.
Bad policy is the surest and most powerful ally of malicious, hate-driven miscreants like the Tsarnaev brothers. On April 19, the day of the lockdown, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the sole surviving Boston Marathon bomber, hid inside a boat in a private backyard, incapacitated and nearly dead from a botched suicide attempt. Dzokhar wanted only to end his own life, and yet he could never have caused more trouble than he did during those hours, because, while the lockdown was in place, bad policy was inflicting more economic damage than the Tsarnaev brothers’ crude and clumsy attack could ever have unleashed on its own.
Only after the lockdown was lifted could a private citizen, David Henneberry, leave his house and notice that his boat had a loose cover. As Thomas Jefferson would have told the Bostonians, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Virtually every time malicious plots against innocent civilians are actually foiled – be it the takedown of United Airlines Flight 93 or the arrests of attempted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – it is the vigilance of ordinary but courageous individuals that truly enhances the safety of us all. Policies that create martial law, prevent people from leading their lives, and result in SWAT-style “sweeps” of people’s homes in search of a single individual not only do nothing to actually help capture the violent wrongdoer, but also subvert the liberty, prosperity, and quality of life for many orders of magnitude more people than any criminal cell could ever hope to undermine on its own.
Would any other dangerous condition, one not thought to be “terrorism,” ever provoke such a wildly disproportionate and oppressive reaction? Consider that Boston had 58 homicides in the year 2012. Many cities’ murder rates are much higher, sometimes reaching an average of one murder per day. Was a lockdown initiated for every third homicide in any American city? Traffic fatalities claim over 30,000 lives in the United States every year – or 10,000 times the death toll of the Boston Marathon bombing, and ten times the death toll of even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Are entire neighborhoods shut down every time there is a deadly car crash? If this were the accepted practice, all economic life – indeed most life in general – in the United States would grind to a halt. Yet, while the most likely and widespread threats to our lives come from very mundane sources, bad policies and distorted public perceptions of risk are motivated by fear of the unusual, the grotesque, the sensational and sensationalized kinds of death. And yet, in spite of fear-mongering by politicians, the media, special interests, and those who rely exclusively on sound bites, the threat to one’s personal safety from a terrorist act is so minuscule as to safely be ignored. In fact, as Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine discusses, the odds of being killed by a lightning bolt are about four times greater!
Ironically enough, the very act that precipitated the Boston lockdown might not even officially be designated a terrorist act after all. If you thought that this was because politicians are suddenly coming to their senses, think again. The real reason is somewhat less intuitive and relates to insurance coverage for the businesses damaged by the attacks. Most commercial property and business-interruption insurance policies will cover losses from criminal acts, but explicitly exclude coverage for acts of terrorism, unless the business purchases special terrorism coverage reinsured by the federal Terrorism Risk Insurance Program. However, for the terrorism exclusions in many ordinary commercial insurance policies to apply, an act of terrorism has to be formally certified as such by the Secretary of the Treasury (and sometimes other officials, such as the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security). (For more details on this turn of events, read “Business Frets at Terrorism Tag of Marathon Attack” by the Associated Press.) The affected businesses really do not want the bombings to be formally classified as terrorism, as this will impede the businesses’ ability to obtain the insurance proceeds which would be integral to their recovery.
I have no objection to the federal government refraining from certifying the bombings as a terrorist act in an effort to avoid needless bureaucratic complications that would impede recovery. However, I also detest Orwellian doublethink. If the bombings are not terrorism for one purpose, then they cannot be terrorism in any other sense. If they will not be used to justify depriving businesses of insurance proceeds, then surely they must not be used to deprive the rest of us of our freedom to move about as we wish, to pursue our economic aspirations, to retain the privacy of our homes, and to otherwise lead our lives in peace. If the bombings are not certified as terrorism, then all fear-mongering rhetoric by federal politicians about the need to heighten “security” in response to this “terrorist” act should cease as well. The law of non-contradiction is one type of law that our politicians – and the people of the United States more generally – urgently need to recognize.
I certainly hope that no future bombings of public events occur in the United States, not only out of a desire to preserve the lives of my fellow human beings, but also out of grave concern for the possibly totalitarian reaction that would follow any such heinous act. I enjoy living in peace and relative freedom day to day, but I know that it is only by the grace and perhaps the laziness of America’s political masters that I am able to do so. I continue to hope for an amazing run of good luck with regard to the non-occurrence of any particularly visible instances of mass crime, so that the people of the United States can find the time to gradually become enlightened about the real risks in their lives and the genuinely effective strategies for reducing those risks. There is hope that the American people are gradually regaining their common sense; perhaps they will drag the politicians toward reason with them – however reluctant the politicians might be to pursue sensible policies for a change.