Fear and panic in Boston

Since I never watch TV news, my contact with mainstream news is fairly limited. It starts in the morning with listening to Morning Edition on NPR, a little more NPR on the drive home, and reading the local paper The Plain Dealer in the evening. At various times during the day, I occasionally check up on some news sites on the web but these sites deal more with world news. So it possible for me to sometimes completely miss those stories that come and go within one news cycle or less, such as the ‘terrorist scares’ that seem to sporadically break out in the US.

blogimage_mnite.jpg Such was the case with the Boston scare last week. It was only after it was over that I realized that the city of Boston had been scared out of its wits for a day by a campaign of lighted objects (which look like a children’s toy called Lite-Brites) used as advertisements for a TV program called Aqua Team Hunger Force that had been placed around the city. Apparently the authorities had treated these objects (shown here being removed by a policeman) as if they were IEDs, the infamous ‘improvised explosive devices’ that have been used extensively in Iraq.

I must say that even though I am not by any means an explosives expert, merely from reading the news I got the impression that real IEDs are small and discreet objects, usually hidden by trash or other camouflage, such that only the tip of a wire (the antenna presumably) were visible. It takes training and very close observation to detect their presence. They are not brightly lit flashing objects, drawing attention to their presence. If I had seen one of these Lite-Brites by the street it would have hardly caused me more than a mild interest as to what it was. But the Mayor of Boston and the police department went on full alert, sparking panic in the city, until they discovered their error.

In this climate of deliberately created fear and paranoia, government officials are fearful of seeming to be oblivious to the safety of their community, so their initial reaction to these cartoon-like objects may be understandable given this hyperventilating atmosphere. What is not excusable is what the main players did after the error was discovered.

Instead of sheepishly conceding their error and explaining that they had perhaps over-reacted out of excessive caution (for which few would have blamed them), the authorities are using the power of the government to exact punishment on the most minor and powerless characters in the whole episode

Why they chose to prosecute the two hapless people who distributed the items is hard to understand since there is enough blame to go around elsewhere. It appears that the companies behind the advertisement gimmick, even after they realized that the Boston city authorities had gone over the top, stalled for several hours on letting them know the truth, presumably because they realized that this was a free advertising bonanza.

What is inexcusable is for Boston to arrest the two performance artists (Peter Berdovsky, 27 and Sean Stevens, 28) who were hired by the advertising company for $300 each to hang the devices around the city to do the promotion, even though there is no reason to think that the two had any intention of creating panic.

This is a disgraceful abuse of government power. These two men were arraigned, pleaded not guilty, and were then released on bail. The advertising company that had hired them did not have the grace to post their bail either, and they had to get the money from family and friends. The two men seemed to take this in their stride and afterwards at a press conference proceeded to mock the journalists by talking about hairstyles in the 70s.

The two seemed like they were doing performance art at the expense of the media and the whole ridiculous hoopla.

Needless to say, this episode has provided a field day for comedy. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert did a quick parody. August J. Pollak recalled a cartoon poking fun at the extent to which we seem to be willing to give up our rights because of our fears, as did Tom Tomorrow (here and here).

I think Pollak had the best take on the behavior of the Boston and Massachusetts authorities.

[Boston Mayor Tom] Menino is going on TV and insisting he’s going to send a 27-year old artist to jail for not breaking any law, because his police department overreacted and wasted a million dollars feeding a media frenzy and terrorizing the population of his own city. That’s a cowardly act of self-preservation, and were he not threatening the life of an innocent young man it would be laughable.

Let’s get a few facts straight on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force sign fiasco:

1. Attorney General Martha Coakley needs to shut up and stop using the word “hoax.” There was no hoax. Hoax implies Turner Networks and the ATHF people were trying to defraud or confuse people as to what they were doing. Hoax implies they were trying to make their signs look like bombs. They weren’t. They made Lite-Brite signs of a cartoon character giving the finger.

2. It bears repeating again that Turner, and especially Berdovsky, did absolutely nothing illegal. The devices were not bombs. They did not look like bombs. They were all placed in public spaces and caused no obstruction to traffic or commerce. At most, Berdovsky is guilty of littering or illegal flyering.

3. The “devices” were placed in ten cities, and have been there for over two weeks. No other city managed to freak out and commit an entire platoon of police officers to scaring their own city claiming they might be bombs. No other mayor agreed to talk to Fox News with any statement beyond “no comment” when spending the day asking if this was a “terrorist dry run.”

4. There is nothing, not a single thing, remotely suggesting that Turner or the guerilla marketing firm they hired intended to cause a public disturbance. Many have claimed the signs were “like saying ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Wrong. This was like taping a picture of a fire to the wall of a theater and someone freaked out and called the fire department.

Fear and paranoia will cause people to behave bizarrely, and even foolishly. That’s understandable. What is not excusable is to blame and punish others for your behavior.

We should all regularly remind ourselves that the goal of terrorists is not necessarily to kill people. It is to cause terror and make people suspicious and to turn on each other out of fear and anger. Their work becomes much easier when we terrorize ourselves. I bet that terrorist groups around the world are giving themselves high fives over the Boston event.

POST SCRIPT: Political preferences and computer choice

I have noticed that the proportion of people who use Macs in academia seem to be greater than their market share of 5% or so. Now a blogger has found that about 15-25% of visitors to ‘liberal’ sites like DailyKos use the OS X operating system while only about 2-3% of visitors to ‘conservative’ sites like Instapundit use them. He has some theories as to why this might be so. It is amusing, not to be taken seriously.

I checked my own site out of curiosity for this year and found that 8% use Macs, 69% Windows, 4% Linux, and 19% are unknown.


  1. dave says

    “In this climate of deliberately created fear and paranoia….”

    I love how you insert phrases like this in the middle of your writings. As if this was fact.

    The reaction by the Boston officials was not due to any ‘deliberately created fear’ but rather due to the fact that they simply reacted poorly.

    This advertising gimmick was carried out in several other cities. New York, Los Angeles and Seattle also were part of the campaign. Yet, only the officials in Boston reacted in such a way.

    If the reaction was caused by some intentional campaign of fear by the federal government, we would have more of this type of reaction.

  2. Jeffrey Quick says

    Day late and a dollar short, Mano.
    Going after the performance artists is just an unfortunate necessity in the process of going after the deep pockets of Ted Turner. It may be more tragic, because they’re in less of a position to defend themselves. But it’s not in principle more unfair.
    And per your postscript: I wonder what percentage of self-defined libertarians are Mac users?

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