Millennium Post

Human face of security measures

It’s the night of 19 April as I write. As per information received till now, one of the two suspects of the Boston marathon bombings has died. The other suspect is wounded and been taken into custody. There were gunfights leading up to it. Through the day I have heard helicopter sounds above and police-car sirens. The primary theatre of action was Watertown, a city near Boston. Boston, Cambridge, Watertown and a few other cities had been ‘locked down’ as a security measure.

This is somewhat different from a curfew. The governor Deval Patrick has requested residents to stay indoors and keep their doors locked. Public transport systems were suspended. Now that measure has been lifted.

The long string of events that started on 18 April began from the evening of the Boston marathon. This annual event is a part of Boston’s urban culture – just like how the Book Fair is an integral part of Kolkata’s city features. This is not only about running a long distance. Many people running there were doing that to raise money for different kinds of charities and causes.

The laboratory where I work, has seven members. Among us, two people were running that day. The proportion should give us an idea how wildly popular this is and how enmeshed this is within the city’s urban culture. Hence, after the explosion, almost as a point of defiance to terror tactics, Boston was back – walking, dancing, running, working, playing – as it generally does. This is not simply a rhetorical statement – being an outsider, if you will, I have noticed this very starkly. In the Boston marathon bombing, three people have died altogether and more than a hundred people were injured.

Many friends of mine from Harvard and MIT went to donate blood after hearing that the hospitals were running especially low on their store of platelets. In Kolkata and Delhi, when much larger catastrophes have happened, have youths from universities and middle-classes queued up to donate blood? I do not know.

On the night of 18 April, I got an SMS alert from the MIT authorities at 10-48 pm to stay indoors and that there had been a shooting incident near the STATA building. Incidentally, this is bang opposite to my own Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. This is the incident wherein an MIT police officer was fatally shot by the Boston bombing suspects. US universities have campus police who are specifically deployed in university areas – and they are different from the city police.

I got the alert within 10 minutes of the incident, pointing to the promptness of the MIT emergency alert system. Periodic alerts continued in the MIT emergency website and also by SMS at 11:20, 11:41, 12:01, 12:28, 12:37, 1:04 and 1:31. Finally, at 1:56 am, the campus was declared safe, that the suspected assailant was not on campus anymore and the staying indoors directive was lifted.

These periodic alerts were important as many researchers are present working till late into the night in any major research university in the US. So this had real relevance.

Such alerts continued through the night, updating everyone associated with MIT with the situation. The main theatre of activity had shifted to Watertown by then. Like many other people, I was also glued to the news and updates, being locked in. Early on, on the 19 April, MIT declared that it would be closed on that day. I got similar messages from Harvard and Lesley, the other two universities I have been associated with. The extent to which they took safety seriously did evoke trust and gratitude in an affiliate like me. Later in the day, MIT President Rafaek Reif sent an email message to all of us. I must mention that such alert messages do come on other days, but very rarely. In matters of security, the police had been working, at least in this case, on the basis of written law, not on the basis of ‘orders’. Recently, at the gates of the Presidency University of Kolkata, as a mob of hoodlums belonging to the ruling party vandalised the university and attacked students inside the campus, the police forces that were posted there told the Registrar that they did not have ‘orders’ to stop this.

Police in India do not seem to need orders when they slap and bloody women repeatedly when they protest and ask questions about the inaction over the rape of a five-year old. (IPA)
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