A few things about the recent news:

"Watertown": People keep saying "Watertown, MA" like it's an actual independent town somewhere that the police shut down in its entirety. It's not. Watertown is a district on the very western edge of Cambridge. It might technically be its own municipality on paper -- Google Maps will give you a deceptively certain-looking boundary line if you ask -- but so is Somerville, a town which I walk completely through on my way to the grocery store. On a good hot day, taking into account thermal expansion, it's maybe a couple square miles, and like a quarter of that is the Mt. Auburn cemetery. The media has been saying Watertown because the cops said Watertown. The cops call it Watertown because the locals call it Watertown. And the locals call it Watertown because the people out here have the kind of all-pervasive historical obstinacy about these things that one more normally associates with, say, the Basque.

Cambridge is particularly ornery in that regard. Brighton (another place around which GMaps will draw a line if you ask for it) has resigned itself to being a subsection of Boston, but the main reason Cambridge hasn't been absorbed yet is because when it comes to bylaws, the Cantabrigiae Novae would rather gnaw their own thumbs off than let anyone else tell them what to do. I don't know precisely which law enforcement agencies were involved, but everyone in the Greater Boston Area seems to cooperate fairly well, no matter who's technically in charge. Hell, Harvard has its own volunteer EMT corps that works with the city ambulance services. Municipal bickering is for when there isn't an emergency on.

Watertown is a few miles off the west end of the MIT campus, although you should also understand that the "MIT campus" stretches in scattershot fashion down about a mile of the riverbank, from somewhere around Kendall Square at the north end of the Longfellow Bridge, to a few blocks past the north end of the Mass Ave bridge. Harvard is actually closer.

"lockdown": I have no idea who started using this word. For all I know it was Twitter. Apparently even Anderson Cooper just gave up by the end of the night and was basically reading the news off his smartphone. There were no jackbooted thugs forcing people back into their homes at gunpoint. What happened was that the MBTA suspended all modes of service, and the local government broadcast a "shelter in place" warning for certain sections of the city. This is not some sort of paranoid panicky shit that they were making up as they went along; this is an established emergency procedure. They did more or less the same thing during Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy, and Surprise Fucktons of Snow Nemo. Note that they did not do this when the bombs went off in the first place. They did the exact opposite. The T ran at greater than peak capacity for some time afterwards, because their priority then was getting everybody the fuck out of the Back Bay.

In this case, as a practical matter, it happened to keep the fugitives from getting out of the immediate area, but the purpose it's actually meant to serve is to establish that, whatever has started going on, the conditions are now sufficiently dangerous that it is unreasonable to expect the average citizen to travel. This prevents a special kind of testosterone-y bullshit that I actually saw a lot of in Flagstaff, which didn't shut down for weather nearly as often as it should have: When the city is officially closed for business, petty authority figures like bosses and professors cannot blackmail you into risking your safety by saying, "Well, we're still open, so show up or you'll be fired/flunked." Enough of Boston is dependent on some aspect of the T for transportation that shutting down the subway, the bus routes, and the commuter rail makes it clear that nobody is going to work today, and that not even the most self-centered of tyrants can do anything about it.

This is also why the streets were so deserted. The MBTA shut down barely half an hour after it started operations for the day, at about 5:30am, before the morning rush started. Nobody managed to get into work in the first place. Downtown was only not quite as ghostly during Sandy and Nemo because the worst weather was scheduled to hit in the evening, and the T didn't close down until mid-afternoon. People who cut it too close were cabbing or hoofing it home for a little while afterwards, and of course there are always some idiots who think that they're special and hurricanes are not the boss of them.

As to why most people cooperated with the "shelter in place" warnings, I imagine it's because nobody out here is particularly fond of IEDs, and they generally seem to assume that the local government has been established for their benefit. I've lived here now through two hurricanes, one blizzard that the National Weather Service decided we needed to be on a first-name basis with, and now this. As far as I can tell, the people running this place are acting in good faith when they tell us they would really like us to stay at home for a while. The government officials of Boston are human and fallible, and they were making a lot of decisions under duress; inevitably, someone is going to make a decision that's less than perfect, and we should talk about that. But they are not out to intentionally dick us over.

Why the Boston PD did not just ventilate the boat as soon as they arrived: Boston is really not a very cut-throat place, I've noticed. It's something that still takes me by surprise. If any of this had happened Out West, the homeowner would not have called the cops to come take care of the suspect in his boat; he would have called the cops to come scrape up the four thousand tiny bloody pieces of the suspect that used to be in his boat, before he went back inside to get the shotgun. BPD evacuated the neighborhood and called in a negotiator. I was floored that it actually worked, but upon further reflection, I shouldn't be surprised. Massachusetts is not good with killing people when it comes to medical care, and is vehemently not good with killing people in the process of law enforcement.

There were several hundred screaming people celebrating on the Common Friday night because the last suspect was caught alive and was going to trial. I couldn't say whether individual people want him dead in the end, but the city as a whole is far more interested in having whoever did this -- and hopefully the police got the right people -- dragged on a proper trip through the American justice system first. The same thing that makes Bostonians insist that that end of Cambridge is still called "Watertown" also makes them consider the Salem Witch Trials a very clear first-hand lesson in How Not To Do Things.


  1. Okay, as someone who lived in Watertown, I can tell you that Watertown actually IS its own town. It has a town manager and council, town hall, and its own little government that makes it ITS OWN TOWN. You're clearly not a local, or you would know that. Here's a website, if you don't believe me: http://www.ci.watertown.ma.us/

    1. Dude, chill. My point was not that the place didn't exist, that the locals didn't see it as a unified entity, or that it was in any way inferior. My point was that it, along with almost all of the other municipalities in the area, is not an isolated standalone city with blank space around it -- it's geographically *very* small and integrated with everything everything else. I've seen people freaking out like the entire metropolis was barricaded off.

      I also pointed out that I literally walk straight through Somerville on my way to buy groceries. People in other areas of the country do not understand how small an area is being talked about when people in New England say 'town' or sometimes even 'city'. Even if you called Watertown a 'suburb' of Cambridge or Boston, they're still generally thinking too large. And if you are talking to a lot of people out in the Southwest -- which this generally is, being some details for the panicky acquaintances back there to whom I spent the day explaining that no, the Army has not gone all Arkham City on the entire Massachusetts coastline -- it is also difficult to understand the notion of being able to walk for half an hour, never see empty space, and end up in an entirely different county than you started from.

    2. You have also, incidentally, just provided an excellent illustration of my point about the Basque. :) They are exactly this way about the Basque Autonomous Region, which is an equally small slice of Spain/France, proportionately speaking. I'm told that in order to get them to agree to (strictly administratively) integrate into Spain, the Spaniards had to agree to make each and every one of them (strictly administratively) nobility.

    3. I think you missed my point. While your post brought up some very valid points (and other points indicate you aren't a local), I felt the need to correct you, as a lifelong local and former resident of the place itself: Watertown is independent of Cambridge and all other towns and cities around it. It is its own town. You specifically said it was not. And the reason Cambridge hasn't been absorbed by anyone else is because it is its own medium-sized city of 100,000 people, just like Somerville. Yes, they're very small, but they have been established for a period of time and, in all the time I have been aware of local politics and whatnot (more than two decades), these cities merging or being absorbed by one another has never even been brought up. It's definitely different from out West or even the Midwest or parts of the South in terms of cities and towns bordering one another versus cities or towns and unincorporated land within a given county in between, et cetera.

      Side note: the Basque region in Southwestern Europe is not its own country; it may be culturally autonomous, but each section within either Spain or France remains part of its respective country. They appear to wish they were their own country, but they aren't. In Massachusetts terms, Watertown, Cambridge, and Somerville are, in fact, their own cities/towns within the Commonwealth. So I'm not entirely sure what your "argument" is, since these are two different situations.

    4. Nice spirit in this post, and it's pretty accurate in the part about our attitude toward the so-called "lockdown" (at least of everyone I've talked with). Nothing like that can happen unless most people agree with it, and as you note, it's not so different from how we deal with storm emergencies.

      Two corrections, though. First, the Salem Witch Trials were (for the most part) judicial murders carried out through trials. What I think most of us want is not just trials but FAIR TRIALS on crimes including murder, with a max penalty of life without parole (we don't have a death penalty). I don't think most of us want the Feds taking over (though they are doing so anyway). The Feds helped out, of course, but our police forces took the risks & caught him, with civilian assistance, and he should be ours to put on trial.

      Second, there are lots of parts of the country where independent cities have blank space between them, but every square inch of Massachusetts is part of a city or town (well, except for four towns that were taken over as special water protection district). You can say that Watertown & Cambridge are part of Metro Boston, but to say they aren't cities just shows lack of local knowledge -- saying this happened in Watertown rather than Boston is one of the things the news got right. BTW, Boston and Cambridge (initially called Newtowne) were both founded in 1630, and they have very different characters. I doubt that anyone in either city wants them to merge.

      But as I said, good post about people's attitudes out here. I live outside Greater Boston (which is a larger region than Metro Boston), but I had business in the city that day. Didn't happen, no problem -- glad they did what had to be done to contain him & then capture him alive.

    5. Like I said, the Salem Witch Trials are How Not To Do Things. People here don't seem to want the trial to be a parade through town on the way to the gallows. They wanted the people who did this caught, and I don't think many people are weeping openly about the one who decided he needed to shoot it out, but they do want a fair trial, open for public scrutiny, and IF there is a guilty verdict, they want appropriate punishment.

      Boston has a consistent history of learning from things they've screwed up in the past. If there are not already people muttering "Sacco and Vanzetti" as a warning, I would be shocked. Forensics rather strongly suggest that the two of them did in fact do it, but because it couldn't have been proven at the actual trial, then-governor Dukakis vacated the convictions decades after the fact -- refusing to pardon them, because that would imply an assumption of guilt -- and the case is still officially open.

  2. I grew up in Oramge County California, and you can cross multiple cities with no visible boundary. They are cities, but there is no open space or anything between them.
    My first exposure to cities with actual visible borders was a visit to family in South Bend Indiana. Seeing the transition from city to suburb to farms and forest, and back to suburb and then city.....was odd for me.

  3. The coast seems to be the exception -- stuff out there runs into each other a lot like it does out here. The first time I saw the transformation from Phoenix to Anaheim, I was floored. Bits of Orange County and bits of Long Island look weirdly similar.

    A lot of really huge cities along the Rockies are as isolated as South Bend. I flew into Denver once after the new airport was completed and before the new airport caved in on itself. The cab ride into the city was just like coming into Phoenix. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, a stray industrial park, Denver. Las Vegas is much the same. Flagstaff to Vegas is five hours of the most boring conceivable driving you have ever experienced. Hoover Dam is not all that exciting either, but by the time you get there, you're so overjoyed to see some sign of human habitation that the fact that it's in the form of an enormous traffic jam punctuated by souvenir stands is unimportant.


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