From Edward Snowden to Sgt. Sean Murphy

by Timothy Lutts
The Law and Crowd Behavior 

In Boston yesterday, Sgt. Sean Murphy, who leaked the bloody photos of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to counter the glamorized image on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, was placed on restricted duty.

Sean Murphy

What Murphy did was clearly illegal; in fact, the U.S. attorney’s office has called the release of the photos “completely unacceptable.” Murphy has already served a one-day, unpaid suspension and he’s in the midst of another five-day unpaid suspension. After that, he’ll be on desk duty until an internal investigation is complete.

But Murphy is being treated like a hero, and the release of the photos is being treated as almost a necessary evil in the fight against terrorism.

That bothers me, and here’s why.

First, Murphy illegally appropriated his employer’s property and used it to counter the legal actions of a tax-paying American company. And Murphy’s employer is not just any old company; it’s the Massachusetts State Police, whose mission is to uphold the law. Murphy did the opposite. He abused his position.

Granted, Murphy leaked the photos because he had a strong personal conviction that the terrorist should not be glamorized. And luckily for him, there’s widespread support for what he did, not only from other law enforcement people, but also from the public at large; police and firefighters are among the most respected of professionals, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is without a doubt guilty and deserving of a very harsh sentence.

But it’s pretty certain that Tsarnaev is going to get justice anyway; we don’t need Murphy breaking the law to get the proper outcome.

Second, and this applies to the bigger picture, the war against terrorism appears to be evolving into an “us-versus-them” battle, where the dynamics of group behavior overrule individual rational thought. I wrote about this in reference to the wave of “Boston Strong” sentiment that ignored the incompetence and the overreaction of the FBI in its pursuit of the bombers. And that groupthink is clearly alive and well today, as Bostonians lionize the lawbreaking lawman. As a mob, they don’t care about individual rights, due process or privacy; they just want to beat the bad guy. And as in any group, the bigger the mob, the more justified they feel in their actions.

When such groupthink is focused on sports teams, as it is with the Red Sox vs. Yankees rivalry, it’s fairly (but not totally) harmless. But when it enters the domain of law and order, and the passion of the crowd drowns out the rational thought of the individual, we risk trading away our individual rights as the crowd pursues swift justice. And that’s not a good trade.


Meanwhile, there’s Edward Snowden, who left the U.S. on May 20 and has spent his days since working to preserve his personal freedom while sheltering first in Hong Kong and then in Moscow.

Edward SnowdenLike Murphy, Snowden broke the law by appropriating his employer’s property and distributing it publicly. And like Murphy, Snowden had a strong personal conviction that he was doing the right thing. In short, he thought the American people should know how much data the NSA was amassing without their consent and that there should be a public discussion on the issue.

But unlike Murphy, Snowden was acting against the brotherhood of lawmen. So while Murphy has been supported by his fellow lawmen—and there are many thousands of them—Snowden has been supported only by the far less vocal community of people who value privacy and freedom above the force of law. And the conversation that Snowden hoped to start? It’s barely got off the ground.


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