No Really, Civil Libertarians Overreacted
In “Civil Libertarians Overreact to Boston Lockdown“, I criticize what I call “the knee jerk reaction to police action,” and with it, Anthony Gregory’s suggestion that Boston was brought to its knees under the weight of the police state, in “What Is the Threshold for Martial Law”. From what I saw in Boston last week, Bostonians wanted to catch the suspect, and they saw themselves doing so coming out strong. I concluded that by not being sensitive to those most affected and by using the crisis to soapbox, we come across as out of touch. Keeping events in context is ultimately a more effective strategy for communicating the need to safeguard civil liberty in times of crisis.
Anthony Gregory replies in “Boston Police Overreacted, Not Libertarians” that the Boston lockdown was appalling, set a frightening precedent, and justifies an impassioned response by civil libertarians. He writes that my response “urging libertarians to calm down, misfires.”
I am not, however, urging libertarians to calm down. Nor am I arguing the stay-in-place advisory or the door-to-door searches were efficient, necessary, or anything other than a dangerous precedent. My issue is with nonconstructive criticism of police action, not keeping criticism in context or sensitive to those most affected. My issue is with hyperbole, in disconnecting the analysis from the events.
There is no disagreement here on the need to shift the debate, but what is lost with a more nuanced response to crisis? Civil libertarians will lose little by keeping the crisis in context when opposing the ludicrous idea of a war on terror, the growth of the national security state, and the militarization of the police. Sensitivity does not compromise adherence to our beliefs, or our internal consistency. Although, it is not like civil libertarians are ever criticized for not being rigid enough, or internally consistent enough. Quite to the contrary, libertarians are often criticized as unyielding and insensitive, and not just in the positions they advocate, but the way they do it.
Anthony Gregory argues that:
“Adopting a position because it belongs to the majority, whose poor stewardship of liberty has brought us to the current dismal state, does not shift the debate. It surrenders the debate.”
This misrepresents my position. I am not suggesting civil libertarians should adopt the position of the majority. I am advocating respect for police action. A consistent libertarian position is that if the residents wished to comply with the stay-in-place advisory or with the door-to-door searches, then they should have the liberty to do so. Respect for police action, by civil libertarian critics, means recognizing that Bostonians overwhelmingly wanted to get “the shithead.”
In “Civil Libertarians Appalled by Tsarnaev Manhunt, Boston Residents Thrilled,” Garrett Quinn wrote for Reason.com that he was unable to locate a single Watertown resident that admitted to being uncomfortable with the shelter-in-place advisory or the 9,000 armed police.
The debate on civil liberties won’t shift at all if we are not sensitive to these most affected. We are trying to persuade people, but how are we supposed to convince Bostonians to safeguard their civil liberties when we suggest Boston was brought to its knees under the weight of the police state or that Bostonians are not libertarian enough? This kind of rhetoric effectively surrenders the debate. It rallies the people that already agree, but distances us from the very people we are trying to convince.
Let me reiterate, the real issue here is not whether the lockdown was anathema to the cause of liberty or whether we should be less steadfast in defending civil liberties. The issue is how to shift the debate on safeguarding civil liberty, and it should be clear that hyperbole is not going to win anyone over but those already in the camp.