Civil Liberties

Civil Libertarians Appalled by Tsarnaev Manhunt, Boston Residents Thrilled

While Boston residents celebrate the capture of suspected marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, civil libertarians question police tactics.


Woman looks on as armored police vehicles rolls down street
Photo by Dan Nystedt,

WATERTOWN, Mass.—Boston-based civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate told he is very troubled by the measures taken by law enforcement officials during the manhunt for alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His views contrasted greatly with what this reporter came across during dozens of man-on-the-street interviews conducted across the greater Boston area last week, where residents voiced overwhelming support for the actions of local, state, and federal officials.

"It was only after people were allowed out of their houses did somebody spot the guy, proving that an alert citizenry is more capable of ensuring safety than an army of militarized police," said Silverglate, who described Gov. Deval Patrick's advisory to "shelter in place" as "outrageous and counterproductive" and likened it to something out of Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World.

"The whole shelter in place was symbolically very bad; it gave the people the notion that we were under some kind of military attack," said Silverglate, who said Boston was more closed down last week than London was during the German bombings in World War II.

As for the huge outpouring of public support for law enforcement in the wake of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's capture, Silverglate called it "very dangerous" and bordering on "adoration."

"There's a difference between appreciation and adoration, this has moved into adoration. We have learned that there is a vast militarized law enforcement establishment at the state, federal, and local levels. I actually feel like I am in an occupied country and I don't know how many other people share my view on that. We have seen the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and it is very scary," said Silverglate.

The police do have the authority to enter homes without warrants in emergency situations, he added, but the house-to-house searches by militarized police with heavily-armored vehicles only added to the siege mentality of the situation while threatening to set a dangerous new precedent in such investigations. "Every time there is some enlargement of the military industrial national security state it becomes the new normal and I would say we're in a new normal and this is a very disturbing new normal," he said.

The executive director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, Carol Rose, was more reserved in her comments about last week's events, noting that the command to "shelter in place" was not an order but advisory. "It wouldn't be constitutional for the government to issue that kind of an order absent other kinds of circumstances," said Rose.

Rose said her office has received reports from people in Watertown and elsewhere that their rights were violated during Friday's manhunt. They are currently verifying these claims. "We need to get more facts to find out what happened so we can get a better handle on what exactly went down in Watertown and, for that matter, Cambridge," said Rose, adding this is something that ACLU cares deeply about.

"This is not the time to give up our constitutional rights and civil liberties. This is the time that they become most important. It is in times of crisis and fear that they are most tested," said Rose.

During the course of my reporting, I was unable to locate a single Watertown resident that admitted to being uncomfortable with the government asking them to "shelter in place" while 9,000 armored police descended on the Greater Boston area in search of a single suspect. In my estimation, the support for law enforcement appeared to be nearly universal, with phrases like "110% support" and "they did a great job" thrown around by virtually everyone I interviewed before, during, and after the manhunt. As one woman told me, "If it were ever to happen again, I'd hope they take the same precautions."