Marathon bombing: Manhunt has Boston under lockdown. How long can it last?
Residents of Boston and several surrounding communities were instructed to 'shelter in place' Friday during a sprawling manhunt for one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.
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Most attention focused on Watertown, where a gun battle was reported in the early morning hours. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was taken into custody after being wounded by gunfire, and apparently by an explosion as well. He reportedly was taken to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where he was declared dead shortly later.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Learning from the Boston Marathon bombings
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But Dzhokhar was reported to have fled the scene in a dark SUV that he and his brother had commandeered, and heavily armored police were seen to be combing areas of Watertown house by house.
The lockdown of such a large swath of urban America as part of a manhunt is unprecedented. Since the 9/11 attacks, security experts and the Department of Homeland Security have pondered how best to secure urban areas – and how to empty them out if disaster strikes. Escape corridors have been created, including one in Boston.
During emergencies, including college campus and school shootings across the US in recent years, lockdowns have become a first response. But doing so across a city is almost unheard of, with one notable exception: On 9/11, New York, Washington, and much of the transportation infrastructure of the entire nation came to a near standstill. But that hasn’t happened for a manhunt.
"It's unprecedented in responding to a manhunt to shut down a major US city," says Stephen E. Flynn, co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University.
What's driving it, he says, is the attempt by authorities to deal with dangerous, uncertain situations, to freeze the situation and sort things out. Doing that means, for instance, that police don't have to worry about people being available to be potential targets or get caught up indiscriminately, he says.
"When you can't limit the sense of risk in an ongoing threat, the natural reaction is to freeze the situation," Dr. Flynn says. "If that risk is a wider circle you end up freezing more. Typically, you do this to isolate risk – but when that risk seems unbounded, you bring everything to a halt. That's where we are right now."
In the recent case of a rampaging former Los Angeles Police officer, Los Angeles was not brought to a halt, he notes. But in that case, the targets were known to be other police, so the threat to the public broadly didn't seem so acute, and Los Angeles, though on edge, continued to function.
For 23 days in October 2001, sniper attacks plagued communites from Washington, D.C. to Ashland, Va. Along the way, 10 people were killed and three others critically injured by snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. But Washington was never shut down completely.
"This is an extraordinarily dangerous situation, and law enforcement is dealing with this very professionally," Flynn says. "Given what happened Monday, you can see why they used this 'shelter in place' protocol – to help protect people.”
The nation's biggest lockdown came after the 9/11 attacks when US airspace, New York and Washington were virtually shut down, Flynn notes. But that wasn't a manhunt. The question is how long a shutdown can last, he says.
"We know in hostage situation and negotiating situations these things can go on a long time," he says. "There's a question about how long that can go on for a major metropolitan area."
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