Boston bombing: Why to expect bad fallout on two fronts

boston-marathon-explosion-03April 24, 2013

By Chris Reed

The fallout from the April 15 terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon continues. Initially, the primary reaction was tired partisan attempts to imply the fault was either somehow a) the president’s fault because of his foreign policy or b) the Republicans’ fault because of the sequester. Then the focus was on the mainstream media’s series of gigantic mistakes on alleged key developments in the investigation — something longtime MSM critics found both enjoyable and unsurprising.

But now that one suspect has been killed and another is in custody, and the big thinkers are divining what it all means and how we should react as a nation, watch out.

At least for civil libertarians and for fiscally sane policy wonks who watch local government in California and elsewhere, the consequences of the attack are likely to be troubling and disappointing.

Enabling those who seek executive power without limits

On the first front, the attack has encouraged the advocates of the surveillance state and emboldened those who believe limits essentially no longer apply to the power of the executive branch.

It is one thing to believe that every effort should be made to track the communications and activities of suspected terrorists. But it is another thing to believe that there should be literally no limit on the amount of information the government is allowed to clandestinely collect on everyone else, even the obviously innocent. And it is wholly another thing to believe that the U.S. government has the right to kill not just foreign suspects but U.S. citizens abroad without trial or due process — especially when those Americans are not engaged in activity posing an imminent threat to U.S. interests.

Yet neither party truly opposes this assertion of near-unlimited government power. Democratic objections to the George W. Bush administration’s excesses vanished when he left office — even as the Obama administration in many ways exceeded Bush 43’s overreach. Republican objections to Obama’s policies — at least from GOP veterans who were mega-hawks post-9/11 — seem expedient and insincere.

Just six weeks ago, however, Sen. Rand Paul demonstrated that the American public didn’t want unlimited government power and a president to be judge, jury and executioner. The first-term Kentucky Republican’s filibuster over the Obama administration’s stunning claim of unlimited drone assassination power won broad support from the U.S. public, according to polls, and prompted a rare concession from the Obama administration: Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement that the federal government did not have the right to rub out Americans in America who weren’t threatening anyone.

For civil liberties, war on terror worse than normal war

But Boston has blunted Rand Paul’s message. The case for a government security apparatus unconcerned with constitutional niceties once again seems strong to many shaken Americans.

alan-bockThe warnings of my former Orange County Register colleague, the late Alan W. Bock, seem more prophetic with every year.

In the run-up to the beginning of the U.S.-Iraq war in 2003, Bock told me that wars are always an occasion for governments to vastly increase their power and to expand the dimensions of what is allowable conduct, but that the war on terrorism might be particularly destructive to liberty.

Bock believed that the undefined, apparently never-ending U.S. global war on terror triggered by 9/11 might leave the federal government in a default mode in which it never stopped seeking expanded power.

A decade later, a Republican president and a Democratic president alike have shown Bock’s fears were valid.

When veneration of public-safety officers carries a literal price

The other fallout to fear from the Boston terrorist attacks may seem far more parochial and seemingly minor. But it is neither petty nor minor. It is the strong possibility that the heroism of the “first responders” to the bombings will translate into additional political clout for public-safety unions who are in many cases the main threat to the financial stability of cities and counties in California and across America.

The veneration going to law-enforcement officers and firefighters is similar to that accorded our military service members since the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91. But those in the military haven’t been able to use this veneration as a club to win labor agreements that provide automatic raises from the government even as it pursues bankruptcy, as is the case with public-safety workers in San Bernardino.

After 9/11, this veneration reached extraordinary extremes. It provided political cover in an era in which pension spiking and manipulation at the behest of police and fire unions exploded at the local government level, enabled by the dot-com boom filling pension-fund coffers. In that period, when I wrote skeptically about public safety pensions at the Register, the terrible events of that Tuesday morning in Manhattan in late summer of 2001 were often thrown back at me. This was nothing new in Orange County, where public-safety employees know they will get the benefit of the doubt because of their images.

Now the veneration that police and fire personnel count on is revving up once again.

But while appreciation for the heroism of first responders is appropriate, political exploitation of that appreciation to pry money from tottering cities and counties is crass and depressing. Unfortunately, based on what we’ve learned in California, such exploitation is an absolute certainty in coming months and years.

For those who believe in liberty and solvent local government, the fallout from April 15 is to be dreaded.



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