The reaction in the Boston area was pretty upbeat, but a few national security writers (including FP's Stephen Walt) have been sounding some sour notes which are worth exploring a bit. Their basic objection is whether it was appropriate to shut down an entire metropolitan area just to hunt down one wounded terrorists.
In short, two miscreants have shut down an entire metropolitan region. And we're supposed to try to not give terrorists what they want.— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) April 19, 2013
Trying to imagine the reaction of NYers if they were told to stay inside because a crazy person was on the loose. Here we call that Monday.— Michael Cohen (@speechboy71) April 19, 2013
So, in doing this, did the authorities in Boston let the terrorists win?
I don't think so, but I get the argument. As I said on Twitter last night, Boston wasn't in lockdown after the Marathon bombings, but after the suspects had been identified, caught in a confusing crossfire, and seemingly at large but close to capture. Plus, it wasn't like, outside the Watertown search perimeter, people were getting arrested for leaving their homes (I was in the lockdown zone -- believe me, I know). For a short period of time -- less than a day -- requesting people to stay in their homes to capture an identified violent terrorist doesn't strike me as outrageous.
There is another reason I feel this way, however, and this might be a data point in Goldberg and Cohen's favor. The reason the capture of Tsarnaev felt so good is that it provided a sense of closure. In the span of four days, there was a bombing, an identification, a shootout that left one of the bombers dead and a capture of the other one. Game over. That's feels like victory.
Now, that's obviously a simplification and an exaggeration. There's still the fifty-eight victims in critical condition in Boston-area hospitals. There's still the question of how the judicial system will cope with Tsarnaev. There's still the unanswered question of why they wanted to do it. And there's still the public policy issues that will be touched by the past week's events.
But still, Tsarnaev's capture closed a chapter. That seems pretty rare to me in counter-terrorism. In countries like Israel, senses of closure don't happen all that often. In the United States, however, we've been lucky enough to get that sense after Osama bin Laden was killed. Tsarnaev's capture feels the same way.
Maybe the thing about Americans is that, with the blessings of our geography, we want and expect policy closure on issues that defy the very idea of tidy endings -- and we're willing to temporarily sacrifice some of what makes America great for those moments of closure -- or, to put it more plainly, victory.
The question going forward is whether Americans need to reject this desire for closure. We've done it before -- when it was implemented at the start of the Cold War, containment was an indefinite strategy. There are issues where victory is a chimera. But there are also issues where victory is conceivable, so I wouldn't want that notion to be rejected as a general rule. But when it comes to counterterrorism, this shifting of frames might be necessary.
What do you think? Seriously, what do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.