Atlantic Cities

The Psychology of a Citywide Lockdown

The Psychology of a Citywide Lockdown
Reuters

It takes a remarkable force to keep nearly a million people quietly indoors for an entire day, home from work and school, from neighborhood errands and out-of-town travel. It takes a remarkable force to keep businesses closed and cars off the road, to keep playgrounds empty and porches unused across a densely populated place 125 square miles in size.

This happened on Friday in the midst of a manhunt on the edge of Boston not because armed officers went door-to-door, or imposed a curfew, or threatened martial law. All around the region, for 13 hours, people locked up their businesses and "sheltered in place" out of a kind of collective will. The force that kept them there wasn’t external – there was virtually no active enforcement across the city of the governor's plea that people stay indoors. Rather, the pressure was an internal one – expressed as concern, or helpfulness, or in some cases, fear – felt in thousands of individual homes. The distinction is an important one.

This dawned on me Saturday night at a small and thankful dinner party in the Savin Hill neighborhood, where nearly everyone around the table had been at the marathon on Monday. A friend's sister told me she had stayed inside all day out of deference to law enforcement. "I didn’t want to be an asshole," she said. She didn’t want to get in the way.

"Nobody wants to be that guy," my friend, the hostess, later told me. "You don’t want to be the person who gets into a car accident and has to call first responders away from something more important."

Outside of Boston, it’s a little hard to appreciate how hundreds of thousands of people took personally an attack Monday on an event that registers as a curiosity – or a cause of traffic jams – in most American cities. But the Boston Marathon is not like other marathons. It’s the occasion of a citywide holiday. Everyone goes, or knows 10 people who do. By Friday night, the chalkboard at Bukowski Tavern in Cambridge was still showing the Monday drink specials for anyone who had run the race. Run a marathon in Boston, and your drinks might as well be on the city.

All of this means that when officials asked residents before dawn on Friday, and later in robocalls, to stay behind closed doors while they hunted the last culprit, so many people were willing to do the extraordinary. Of course, officials limited movement in other ways; they closed the public transit and halted Amtrak routes out of town. And they shuttered public institutions like schools and government office buildings, meaning that some people even with their technical freedom of movement had nowhere to go. But tens of thousands of people who don't rely on the T or might have used the day off from work to do something else stayed at home as well.

To the extent that Boston was on "lockdown," Deval Patrick didn't make that happen alone; the city locked down itself.

We can still debate whether this was an overreaction – a collective loss of perspective as much as an official one – but it's important to recognize that there's a difference in a democracy between "we're asking people to shelter in place" and "an officer will knock on your door." Friday was an unsettling episode in America's 200-year search for the right balance between individual freedom and collective security, and the tension between those two goals is never more present than in our biggest cities. But once we cross over into actual curfews and citywide martial law with a suspected terrorist on the loose, that's when the really serious questions up.

At my dinner in Savin Hill, another guest raised the counterfactual: If he had really been ordered to stay inside – if there had been nothing voluntary about Friday's lockdown – that's the moment he would have walked out his door. That's the scenario we simply can't abide in an American city.

The streets in and around Boston were similarly ghostly, with transit halted and businesses closed, just two months ago. A snowstorm was barreling down on the region, and – psychological impacts aside – the resulting scene turned out to be strikingly like what we saw on Friday. There was one difference, though, back in February: With snow starting to fall, Deval Patrick ordered all cars off state roadways by 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. The penalty for violating the ban: A $500 fine and up to a year in jail.

We saw nothing like that in Massachusetts on Friday. But imagine if we had.

Top image of Boston's Kenmore Square area during Friday's manhunt: Neal Hamburg/Reuters

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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