Image by Chris Faraone
It’s sick to think that in the wake of horrors like those which unfolded in Paris, France last week, some people are snapping on their party hats. I’m not talking about terrorist goons in any number of rogue organizations, or the sick and twisted clerics who cheer on atrocity. Rather, I’m referring to surveillance and security contractors who feast on tax dollars, and who have never met a tragedy they couldn’t turn into a profit.
In Massachusetts, one doesn’t have to look far for examples of domestic war profiteering. As was first revealed in DigBoston and subsequently reported by news organizations worldwide, following the bombing of the Boston Marathon, companies like IBM came in for the kill, pushing newfangled technologies on vulnerable pols and state agencies. Many of the costly purchases, like facial recognition software, were made in secret despite posing threats to civil liberties. So you can imagine why privacy advocates like me may be alarmed that a terror campaign executed in Europe—3,500 miles from Beacon Hill—has our policing apparatus standing erect.
On Sunday, as people hoisting French flags and with signs that read “Je Suis Paris” still consoled one another following a vigil at the Boston Common bandstand, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and his law enforcement brass spoke to the media inside the State House. The scene downtown and near the Common didn’t seem extreme—a spattering of BPD special operations officers, the usual corps of park rangers. Up the hill and across Beacon Street, however, things were far from normal for the briefing on special security measures.
To be fair, the State House is typically closed to the public on Sundays, and so the circumstances inherently called for strange arrangements. At the same time, the sheathes they put in place seemed superficial if not slapdash. A ranger asked reporters for ID from behind a steel gate on the sidewalk; a pair of state troopers stood like Beefeaters at the top of the steps; once inside, another ranger operating the metal detector asked me for my ID for a second time, just to be safe. I suppose I should be happy that nobody touched my balls.
The ordeal was almost worth the inconvenience. Baker brought important friends along, most notably Hank Shaw, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, Boston Police Department Commissioner William Evans, and Secretary of Public Safety and Security Dan Bennett. Their message was twofold: first, there is absolutely nothing for the people of Massachusetts to be worried about; second, in spite of the first message, every last defensive stop guard will be put in place for good measure.
Special Agent Shaw chimed in early: “At this point in time, there is no articulable information that would indicate any actual threats to the homeland or specifically here to the New England area.” Nevertheless, he added, the FBI is on the lookout for copycat attacks, while the Joint Terrorism Task Force and other coordinating affiliates are monitoring activity in France. “We will continue to work with the intelligence community to get the most updated information that we can share and pass back to our local partners here in the New England area,” Shaw said. “Since the attack the FBI has conducted multiple conference calls with the fusion cells to be able to keep these cells actively up to date.”
We also learned that Massport added layers of security at Logan Airport, where travelers can expect more K-9s than usual sniffing their underwear, and that State Troopers have been ordered to patrol with “heightened awareness.” The Massachusetts National Guard is on alert, while the MBTA is also taking extra caution, presumably including searches through some variation of its Random Baggage Inspection program which has failed to net a single terrorist in 10 years.
Speaking for the BPD, Evans confirmed: “In Mass, we don’t see any viable threats.” Clear and present lack of danger or not though, Evans told reporters, “There’s no doubt about it, now everybody’s heightening security. As we saw after the unfortunate Marathon bombing, people have to expect to be under closer scrutiny.”
That’s not all that happened following the Marathon bombing. As I noted in the preamble to my question for the governor yesterday, two years ago we saw a feeding frenzy among security and surveillance contractors, many of whom scored contracts for unproven but costly new technologies, many of which have since been abandoned by the purchasing agencies, if they were ever used in the first place. In response, Baker passed the mic to Public Safety Secretary Bennett, who assured: “We have to evaluate every contract individually. We’re not going to make expenditures that aren’t important. We aren’t going to make foolish purchases, but if it does come down to something that can make the people of the Commonwealth safer, we are certainly going to look to the governor and make sure we do the right thing.”
Good to hear.
It’s never easy criticizing vigilant Big Brother while the crime scene is still bloody. It’s even more uncomfortable attempting to check the surveillance apparatus during such a time in a place like Massachusetts, which still has post-traumatic stress disorder from the bombing of the Marathon two years ago. But while on one hand it is somewhat understandable that certain steps have to be taken when extraordinary situations explode elsewhere—or it at least it makes some sense that authorities feel obligated to make soothing comments to an irrational public—on the other hand, as your learned lefty pals have no doubt notioned on Facebook over the past few days, state, city, and federal pols alike—as well as their bullhorns in the media—are awfully selective in which bombings and atrocities in countries far away spur them to orchestrate steroidal demonstrations of security and press conferences at home.
To his credit, Baker acknowledged shootings in Dorchester over the weekend, as well as overdoses that occurred throughout the state. In other words, he understands that there are real threats we face, and hinted that ISIS isn’t one of them.
At the same time, the rhetoric from those beside Baker yesterday is still unnerving. As Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack said, apparently without realizing how ridiculous her comments were, “In the absence of a specific threat, the goal is to increase both our vigilance and our visibility.”
Score one for the bad guys.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.