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Scope of lockdown unheard of for city

| Friday, April 19, 2013, 8:21 p.m.

Major sections of Boston and surrounding communities were under a sprawling and possibly unprecedented police lockdown Friday morning amid a widepsread urban manhunt for one of the two identified suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing.

Public transportation systems were shut down, and authorities, including Gov. Deval Patrick, urged residents of Boston and the close neighboring communities of Newton, Watertown, Waltham, Cambridge and Belmont to “shelter in place,” requesting that they keep doors locked and stay indoors. Before noon, Boston's Logan Airport was reported open, and cab service had been allowed to resume.

Harvard, Boston University, MIT, Boston College, Suffolk, and Northeastern University were reported to have closed for the day. At the same time, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Administration announced a sudden closure on Friday morning that left people stuck at transit stations across the metropolitan area. Highways were clogged with commuters unable to get into the city. University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second suspect in Monday's twin blast at the Boston Marathon finsh line, was a student, was evacuated and searched by bomb squads.

The lockdown of such a large swath of urban America as part of a manhunt is unprecedented. Since the 9/11 attacks, security experts and the Department of Homeland Security have pondered how best to secure urban areas and how to empty them out if disaster strikes. Escape corridors are in place, including one in Boston.

During emergencies, including college campus and school shootings across the United States in recent years, lockdowns have become a first response. But doing so across a city is almost unheard of, with one notable exception: On 9/11, New York, Washington and much of the transportation infrastructure of the entire nation came to a near standstill. But that hasn't happened for a manhunt.

“It's unprecedented in responding to a manhunt to shut down a major U.S. city,” said Stephen E. Flynn, co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University.

What's driving it, he says, is the attempt by authorities to deal with dangerous, uncertain situations, to freeze the situation and sort things out. Doing that means, for instance, that police don't have to worry about people being available to be potential targets or get caught up indiscriminately, he says.

“When you can't limit the sense of risk in an ongoing threat, the natural reaction is to freeze the situation,” Flynn said. “If that risk is a wider circle you end up freezing more. Typically, you do this to isolate risk — but when that risk seems unbounded, you bring everything to a halt. That's where we are right now.”

In the recent case of a rampaging former Los Angeles Police officer, Los Angeles was not brought to a halt, he notes. But in that case, the targets were known to be other police, so the threat to the public broadly didn't seem so acute, and Los Angeles, though on edge, continued to function.

For 23 days in October 2001, sniper attacks plagued communites from Washington, D.C. to Ashland, Va. Along the way, 10 people were killed and three others critically injured by snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. But Washington was never shut down completely.

“This is an extraordinarily dangerous situation, and law enforcement is dealing with this very professionally,” Flynn says. “Given what happened Monday, you can see why they used this ‘shelter in place' protocol — to help protect people.”

The nation's biggest lockdown came after the 9/11 attacks when US airspace, New York and Washington were virtually shut down, Flynn notes. But that wasn't a manhunt. The question is how long a shutdown can last, he says.

“We know in hostage situation and negotiating situations these things can go on a long time,” he says. “There's a question about how long that can go on for a major metropolitan area.”

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