A work of fiction. So far …
The news roared through Beantown. Rush hour on this Monday morning was the absolute worst. Commuter traffic in Boston was always a one-way ticket to Hell, but no one could remember it being this bad. No one had dreamed that it could be this bad.
No road was spared. Lines of stopped vehicles stretched deep into the suburbs. Many a half-asleep creature of commuter habit was jolted awake, not by Dunkin Donuts coffee, but by the frantic squeal of brakes and the fury of yelling voices. Expressway ramps 50, 100 miles from downtown sparkled with broken glass.
Cell phones everywhere shouted confusion, outrage, and apologies for being late to the world. Facebook and Twitter were nearly overwhelmed with screams of frustration and demands for explanations. Rumors went viral only to be overtaken with new rumors. The stories soon coalesced, however, around one fact: over the weekend, the speed limits on the expressways had all been reduced by 10 mph, with no notice, and with corresponding reductions on the side roads.
And it was clear that the state and local police were serious about enforcing the new limits. Early risers who had dashed down the highways, secure in their conviction that “65 mph” really meant “85”, were abruptly pulled over by the phalanxes of patrol cars. Slowdowns from the pullovers, and from the rubberneckers gawking at the spectacles, soon became chokepoints that brought all traffic to a standstill.
Bostonians texted their friends in other US cities: “Man, you wouldn’t believe the traffic snafu in this place. You sure as hell don’t want to be in Boston today.”
Only to get the chilling response: “What?? You too?!?”
For what was happening in Boston was happening all across The Land of the Free. Who, on this day, weren’t free to move anywhere. The roadways of the USA had all been subjected to the new speed rules, and had congealed, clotted, and set hard, like dried blood. The resulting clamor was threatening to erupt into full-scale panic, when a message from the White House appeared on radio, TV, and the Internet.
My fellow Americans. You know that we are engaged in a War on Terror, against ruthless enemies that hate all we stand for, and will do anything to harm our country and its innocent people.
We’ve found out that an attack is about to happen. A big one. We know that they’re going to try to hit a city, with bombs in cars, trucks, or buses. But we don’t know when, or where, or by who. Though I think you can guess.
Therefore, I ordered strict controls on all traffic. I ordered those controls kept secret until we knew they could be enforced. I ordered that the controls be kept in place until we know that the threat is gone. Our great military and police have moved fast to make this happen.
Yeah, this has snarled traffic. But we’ve got to do this so we can protect ourselves against the enemies of our freedom. When we beat those enemies, our freedoms will be safe. If we all do our jobs, this won’t take long.
Look. A speeding car is a law-breaking car. Its occupants may be fleeing from justice, or rushing to wreak an unspeakable horror upon us. We all know that speed kills. If, by doing this, I have stopped an American from getting killed by a law-breaker, I’ve done my job.
Now you do yours. Listen to the brave men and women who are working to keep us safe, and do what they tell you right away and without arguing. Tell them at once if you see anyone, or anything, suspicious. So that our great nation can thumb its nose at those who hate us, can show to the world that we cannot be stopped.
The message got the predictable responses from the usual places: Hooah! from some, Impeach the bastard! from others. But most people, assured that the world as they knew it was not coming to an end today, either, and having had enough drama and excitement for a month of Mondays, contented themselves simply with trying, somehow, to get home.
Over the next few days, the chaos of “Gridlock Monday”, as it soon came to be called, was replaced by order and a semblance of movement. Mass media were constantly providing updates on the traffic situation, snippets of information about the suspected bombing plots, and a barrage of advice on how to do everything on your schedule while keeping your car off the road as much as possible.
Meanwhile, the “chase and apprehend” strategy of the police on “Gridlock Monday” had changed to a preventive “Escort” procedure. Teams of patrol cars would leave from selected departure points at approximately one-minute intervals, and proceed down the major roads at or below the posted speed limits. The commuting vehicles followed dutifully behind the “Escorts” in long ordered rows. Anyone who tried to pass them, or tried to duck around them using the side streets, was quickly hunted down and jailed. The procedure restored some flow to the roads, though the average commute now took at least twice as long as it had before Gridlock Monday.
About all this, the Internet was strangely silent, even after The Daily Kos posted an article, publicly wondering where all these new cops, in their brand spanking new cop cars, had come from. Two days before wholesale, and unexplained, changes occurred on the Daily Kos staff, and in the slant of its articles.
And then, somebody noticed that the speeds being maintained by the “escorts” were going down. One week after Gridlock Monday, speeds topped out at 55 mph. A month later, it was 40 mph. Commuting times were becoming impossibly long, and fuel costs ever more burdensome. Even before gasoline prices suddenly flared to more than $5 a gallon – which was blamed on the deteriorating political situation in the Middle East and on terrorist threats to oilfields around the world.
There should have been an outcry over all this. After all, road-based public transportation was of no more use than private cars under the “escort” system, and non-road-based systems like commuter rail, in the relatively few communities that had them, were breaking down catastrophically under the pressure, their maintenance having typically been neglected in the years leading up to “Gridlock Monday”.
But few howls of protest made it even onto the social networks. Most of the voices heard were those of professional pundits debating the effects of the transportation crisis on national gross domestic product, and the impact of the extra fuel being burned on global warming and its potential impacts on national GDP.
Then, the White House made another startling announcement. Government agencies, effective immediately, would buy and build housing for its employees. Staffers, they said, would flock to housing built adjacent to their workplaces, and within walking distance of services, rather than go broke and crazy trying to drive a car anywhere.
Private enterprise was urged to follow suit. This they did, with alacrity. Large firms competed with each other and with the Government for prime sites. Smaller businesses were urged to buy space in the developments of the larger operations, or to pool resources with neighbors to build projects of their own. High-rise dormitories sprang up practically overnight, and were fully subscribed as fast as they could be built. Whole neighborhoods were razed to make room for the new construction, if their buildings could not be converted to dormitories quickly or cheaply enough.
A blogger posted an email from a friend, who had resided in an old working-class Italian district of Bostonâ€™s North End â€“ a neighborhood that had been “requisitioned” for a Government high-rise complex.
This must be quick, they haven’t seen my Galaxy yet, when they do it’ll be gone. They came last night with troopers, dogs, and buses, to clear my block. They rousted us out of bed at two in the morning, and threw us onto the buses with nothing more than what we could grab on the way out. Some of us are wearing sheets. Marco refused to go; the last time I saw him he was being dragged off by the dogs. I’m afraid they may have shot him. I think we’re in Pennsylvania now. There’s a rumor we’re being sent to Alabama to pick cotton, but no one really knows anything, and the guard snarls worse than his dog. Pray for us.
The email vanished within minutes of its posting, and the hosting blog with it. The blogger whose site was wiped lamented to a friend, “My account was cancelled. They said I violated their Terms of Service. Still trying to figure out what I did.” The next day, he too had disappeared. Social media soon had nothing on it but product endorsements and incessant gossip about the Kardashians, Duck Dynasty, and the current NFL season …
* * *
It is 0600 on the tenth anniversary of Patriot Monday, a gray, gloomy November morning. The expressways of Boston are silent and empty, except for the occasional military transport, government sedan, or luxury limousine carrying a high-level executive from his town-sized compound an hour’s drive away to a meeting in the city.
In each of the 350 cubicles of the shoddily-constructed South Station high rise, the same scene is being enacted, coordinated by a voice and an image from a monitor embedded in the wall of each cell. A monitor that cannot be muted, cannot be turned off …
OK, stand straight, arms outstretched to your sides. Now, on my count, turn and touch your toes, left hand to right toe, then right hand to left toe. Ten reps. Ready? One … up! Two … up … Smith, you didn’t touch those toes. Any more demerits, and you’ll be working through dinner as well as lunch. Now get your act together and stop embarrassing the unit. We’re already late. Ten reps, again, everybody, thanks to Smith. One … up! Two … up! …