What Does Random Panic Protect Us From?

[ crossposed to dailykos ]

Boston and Massachusetts officials, and some people here at Blue Mass Group, have tried to justify Boston’s overreaction to some hanging lights last week by saying, “what if they hadn’t done what they did, and a real bomb went off?”  This makes as much sense to me as trying to justify the Iraq war by asking, “what if we had not invaded Iraq, and there were another terrorist attack in the US?”

Or, they say, “people were just doing their job!”  Why, they ask, are we second-guessing the actions of the bomb squad, who were responding to a call?  Keeping with the Iraq analogy, this is the “support the troops” tack: It equates criticizing bad policy with attacking the police officers (soldiers) who carry it out.

Let’s focus on the real issues:

  • What threat are we trying to protect ourselves from?
  • How serious is that threat?
  • How would a city protect itself from it?
  • What are the effects of the process we currently have in place?
    • Is it effective?
    • What are its drawbacks?
  • Something clearly went wrong – what should we change?

We’re not facing a serious threat.

We have a process, which I call “Random Panic”, that doesn’t protect us from it anyway.

The protection is actually a bigger problem than the supposed threat.

Protecting Us From Nothing

The threat this activity aims to protect us from, they say, is this: A terrorist, fanatic, or violent person of some sort wants to set off a bomb or bombs in Boston, to kill people or disrupt the city or both, and cause fear.  Well, the fear’s already here and probably doesn’t need help, but leaving that aside, let’s think about what such a person could do.

If you want to cause death and destruction and terror with a bomb, you could put it in a backpack stuffed with papers and clothes.  Dress up like a student, and go sit down in Harvard Square eating a sandwich.  Get up, “forgetting” your backpack (you could receive a cell phone call at an appropriate moment if you want to dress up the acting), and walk away into the crowd.  Nobody would notice anything suspicious, nobody would call the police.  A few minutes later, when you’re safely through to the other side of Harvard Yard or on a bus, the bomb could go off, killing people, blasting shops, and closing down part of the red line.

Or, you could take the express bus from Waltham, and get off in Newton, before the bus gets on the pike.  Leave your bomb under the seat (again, in a backpack stuffed with papers & clothes).  Time it to go off about when the bus is in the I-90 tunnel near Copley – or have an accomplice watch near the entrance to the tunnel and use a remote trigger, so you don’t have to worry about traffic delays.  Or, do what the 1993 World Trade Center bombers did: rent (or steal) a van, and pack it with explosives.  Drive it up to a big building and leave it to explode there.  Boston has no shortage of buildings vulnerable to that attack.  You could close down some major roads that way, too.

None of what Boston did last week shows that they can protect us from this threat, for the simple reason that none of what Boston did bears much relation to what needs to be done to protect us from it.  Boston’s freak out started in response to a call about a strange object, and it’s highly unlikely that such a call would come in the case of a real terrorist bomb.  Protecting us from terrorist bombs requires that we develop a process for spotting them, not that we react in the extreme to the occasional phone call.

Does this make you feel safe?  It makes me feel safe.

Really, I mean that.  I’m not going to say it’s “easy” for a terrorist to plant a bomb, but it’s certainly doable and not particularly complex.  And if someone does plant a bomb, chances that anyone will stop it are tiny.  Given that, and the fact that years have passed since 9/11 with no bombs going off, the lesson is clear: Nobody’s trying!.

… and that’s the best protection there is.

How to Protect Against Bombs

In Israel, the threat of terrorist bombs is real and prevalent.  Israeli authorities and processes are extremely effective at countering it: they catch and prevent real bomb plots and attempts every month – in times of higher tension, multiple times a week.  I’m from Israel, and though I’ve lived most of my life in Boston, I did spend several summers there in the 80s and 90s, enough to be familiar with some of what they do.

In Israel, any unattended portable object is a “suspicious object”, including the equivalent of a backpack left in Harvard Square or on the 553 bus.  Most everyone, except some tourists, knows how to respond.  Someone calls “khefetz khashud” (suspicious object); people clear the vicinity of the object; an announcement is made if it’s somewhere with a PA system; the bomb squad arrives and destroys the object; they make sure there’s nothing dangerous around, and call the all clear.  The whole process usually takes about 15-30 minutes, and affects a single restaurant, bus stop, building, or intersection, while the rest of the city keeps going.

Most bombs and bomb plots get stopped well before they reach the stage where that process is necessary – it’s in place as a safety net for when intelligence fails.  There are other processes to handle suicide bombers, again as a safety net to catch the ones intelligence fails to stop.

The Israeli process of protection against terrorist bombs has a lot of pieces.  Intelligence networks, investigators, rapid response, an informed population, well known procedures, and lots of practice.  It requires the participation of a majority of people, on a daily basis.  It’s a lot of hassle, and a big expense.  People do it because they know the threat is real and prevalent, and because they know it works.  People do it because the cost of not doing it would be bombs blowing up every week.

What’s the Risk?

If we wanted to really protect Boston from terrorist bombs, we’d have to do something like what Israel does.

And yet…  Sometimes, bombs do blow up in Israeli cities.  Every single year, some plots slip through all the safety nets and succeed, while every single year, zero terrorist bombs blow up in Boston.  Why?  Because in Israel, somebody’s trying.  Israel’s process, as effective and robust as it is, is missing the most important piece: the political & social.  The only true way to protect your city from terrorist bombs is to have a political & social situation in which terrorists aren’t trying to plant bombs.  That’s what we have here in Boston.

We’re safer in Boston.  But it’s not because we don’t face a terrorist bomb threat.  Actually, the thing most likely to cause sudden death or injury to a typical Bostonian, and to a typical Israeli, is the same: a traffic accident.  Even in Israel, cars kill more people than terrorists, by a long shot.  We’re safer in Boston because Israeli drivers are crazier, and their accident rates are higher.  Israelis are safer than Italians, who, in turn, are safer than residents of Nairobi, Kenya (which has one of the highest car accident death rates in the world).  On the scale of risk we face, terrorist bombs don’t come close to competing with many people’s daily commute to and from work.

Incidentally, bumper to bumper traffic on a highway increases accident rates.  Accidents in a bumper to bumper portion of a highway tend to be low speed and don’t cause injury, but if portions of a road are clear and portions are clogged, accidents at the transition points can be serious.  When you close or divert major roads during high traffic times, you increase the risk of injury to a lot of people.

What are we protecting ourselves from, again?

Random Panic

But let’s get back to those hypothetical bombs in Boston, the ones that don’t exist but that our city claims to be protecting us from.  Why, exactly, did they decide to kick in maximum “protection” when they found that first Mooninite?

It’s not because the Mooninite sign was more likely to be a bomb than countless other objects in the city.  Sure, the Mooninite could have been a bomb, but so could just about anything else that’s lying around.  If anything, these cartoons were much less likely to be bombs than millions of other things we see lying around.  Making something with lights and a pattern to draw attention, and hanging it somewhere visible, aren’t exactly on a would-be terrorist bomber’s priority list.  So why wasn’t Chinatown closed down last weekend because of the crate of vegetables some delivery truck left on the sidewalk, that I walked by.  Don’t tell me a crate of vegetables can’t be hiding a bomb.

Why did the cartoons lead to a panic when many other things much more likely to be bombs did not?  Because they were weird.  And because they were weird, someone called to report them as being weird.  As Boston officials have said, and commenters on this blo
g have echoed, “what if we hadn’t responded to the call, and then something happened?”  Nobody says, “what if we hadn’t called the alarm over that crate of vegetables in Chinatown, and then it turned out to be a bomb?”  Nobody says, “what if we hadn’t shut down Harvard Square because of that stray backpack, and then it turned out to be a bomb?”  Why?  Because those things aren’t weird, and therefore nobody called about them.  The process we have isn’t about protecting us from terrorists, it’s about covering the city’s ass.

How likely is there to be a correlation between actual bombs, and calls reporting weird objects?  First, real bombs are highly unlikely – we haven’t had even one yet.  Second, if there were a real bomb, there’s little chance of it being weird and prompting a call.  Third, there are a lot of weird objects around that aren’t bombs but could prompt calls.  Therefore, the correlation is probably negative.  In today’s Boston, given what we know and how we act and think, if someone calls about an unusual object, it’s almost certainly not a bomb, and is in fact less likely to be a bomb than some other object that nobody called about.  The Aqua Teen Hunger Force attack is an illustrative example of this.

We have in place a process that responds to such calls with hysteria, spectacle, and a major disruption of the city.  It’s a response that, as we’ve seen, has major costs – not just the $1 million the city says it cost them, but the disruptions and delays for millions of other people.  And yet, despite all this cost, it’s a response that is triggered essentially at random, with no positive correlation to the (almost nonexistent) threat it’s supposed to be a response to.  That’s why I call it “Random Panic”.

What Should We Do?

First, we need to understand the situation:

  1. We’re not under a serious threat of terrorist bombs.
  2. If we were, the process we have now would not protect us from it at all.
  3. We’re basically safe, but we suffer from the process that’s supposed to keep us safe.

Once we understand the situation, we can stop looking for outside scapegoats.  Turner is not to blame.  The ad agency is not to blame.  Sean and Peter are not to blame.  The vegetable truck delivery people are not to blame.  The student who forgot her backpack is not to blame.  We have a broken process that does us no good, and that is where we need to shine the light.  Step back a bit, and tune our “response” to better suit the value it provides (which is, very little).

Then, we can weigh the tradeoffs involved in putting in place something that actual would protect us from bombs.  It should be obvious to us that in our current situation, it’s not worth it.  We can’t go the Israeli way without a major investment, not just on the part of the city & state, but on the part of most residents – and residents simply aren’t going to stick to such a program unless they see the threat.  Not just abstractly, but for real.  Since it’s not real, it can’t work.

If someone calls about a suspicious object, investigate.  But don’t assume it’s a bomb without evidence – and understand that the fact that someone called about it does not constitute evidence.  If someone calls in a specific bomb threat, that is evidence: respond accordingly.  But even in that case, don’t overreact.

If and when we turn out to have an active, ongoing threat of terrorist bombings, then and only then, start learning how to counter it from places like Britain and Israel.  In the meantime:

    Admit that the city screwed up in a big way.

    Apologize to the people.

    Apologize to the artists.

    Investigate and fix the broken process.

    Investigate the implementation of that process in this particular case: how those in charge acted.

    Apply some accountability to city authorities if appropriate.

    Drop all threats & court cases against the scapegoats.

Stop digging the hole we got ourselves in, deeper.

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65 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Excellent analysis, Cos

    Somehow this needs to find it's way to Governor Patrick's attention.

  2. Phenominal Cos

    Cos, this is articulate, direct, and exceptionally well thought out.  Bravo.  And I agree that it absolutely must find its way to Gov. Patrick.

  3. 100% Correct!

    Well done!

  4. Thanks, Cos

    You voiced a lot of my thoughts and concerns on this issue. People need to realize we're SAFE, at least as safe as we've ever been. Terrorists aren't hiding out on the streets of Boston waiting to pounce. Furthermore, what Boston did as a result of Mooninites easily could have been lethal in and of itself. Causing all the traffic jams could (and probably did) result in accidents. It's not "safety" if it comes with those huge ramifications.

  5. B-b-b-but...

    It's easy to Monday morning quarterback!

    But you're forgetting this is a post 9-11 world!

    Our first responders are heroes and we should thank them for doing their jobs! Who made you a bomb expert?

    You have to understand, the 9-11 hijackers left from Boston!

    Did I get them all? Just wanted to get that out of the way.

    Personally, I'm rather frightened that our only defense against possible terrorist attack is a string of mindless cliches and irrational sloganeering.

    Luckily, I agree with you: For all the hype, there is a remarkable and fortunate shortage of people with the means to blow us up and the willingness to do so. You could bring the American economy to its knees with a bunch of cheap attacks at shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving--yet, no one's done it. Why? Because mall security guards are all Delta Force veterans? No, because, unlike Europe, we really don't have sufficient numbers of willing and able terrorists ready to do the job, at least, not very often.

    A cogent and well-reasoned analysis. Which means, you're now a sitting duck. Good luck.

    • Re: B-b-but...

      Heh, thanks.  I don't know if you got them all but you got the good ones :)

      We could have the best first responders possible, but that does us no good if we have a process that makes use of them at random.  It's not the first responders we need to focus on to see what went wrong, it's the people in charge, and the policies they've got.

  6. Some good thoughtful analysis

    although I disagree with many of the conclusions (apologize to the artists, right ...), the first part of the post is well presented and well thought out and there would probably be little disagreement from city or state officials.  Once again, the complexities created by the other calls that day at Tufts-NE and the Longfellow are not referenced (as most posters who just want to "blame the city" have regularly done).

    hopefully, everyone can learn from this -- from the "marketeers" to the media to the bureaucrats, and everyone will be a bit wiser next time.

    PS -- totally with you on the 18+ issue, some serious common sense needed there.

    • the other calls

      Information I have is hazy, but I believe these two things to be true:

      1. Those other calls came in after the first "hoax" was reported in the media.
      2. They were not actually specific threats, they were just people calling in to report suspicious objects.

      If that is the case, then my analysis applies to them as well.  They were just predictable follow-on to the random panic reaction the city had already kicked off; they were not objects particularly more likely to be bombs than lots of other things; they were suspected only because people believed there was an active bomb threat, something the city caused.

      • Sorta kinda

        I was under the impression that there was an entirely separate incident involving an alleged pipe bomb... but I know none of the details.

        • could be

          Like I say, information about it seems hazy.  We'll find out when it all clears up.  If the two points I make in the above comment turn out to be true, then this analysis applies to that incident as well.  If there were an actual, real, bomb threat that coincidentally happened on the same day (strange coincidence, eh?  but not totally impossible), then this post does not apply to it, but it doesn't detract from what I'm saying, because our city's random panic reaction kicked in for the Mooninites anyway.

      • Pipe bomb threats

        I haven't followed this as closely as many here have, but you seem to have spent quite a bit of time putting this post together. Kudos on that. I'm wondering if you have links to support what you believe is true regarding the alleged pipe bombs?

        • Pipe Bomb Threats

          It was reported in the Globe either the first or second day afterwards.  I can't get their new beta search feature to work, but you can give it a try.  According to the report, they were actually "fake" pipe bombs, that is, designed to look like pipe bombs but containing no explosives.  If I recall currectly, one was discovered at the New England Medical Center; the other on the Longfellow Bridge.

          I note that almost everyone critical of the authorities' responses conveniently omit the fact that these were discovered while everything else was unfolding.

          • You're conveniently omitting the fact

            that there was an extensive discussion of the fake pipe bombs here as the farce unfolded. Police identified a suspect--a disgrunted medical employee, I believe--almost immediately. The NEMC was not evacuated.

  7. Good post

    It's all about mobilization.  This country has not been mobilized to fight terrorism anymore than it has been mobilized to fight in a war.  There was a nine-year old in Texas who talked his way onto a plane flight a couple of weeks ago.  There are still trash receptacles in the subways.  There is no real defense of our nuclear plants.  America simply has not chosen to make it extrememly difficult to terrorize this country (another discussion is whether our current administration has made it easier by rendering our population more fearful.  Reading Osama bin Laden's stuff during the State of the Union?  Come on already...)

    I fully agree the best use of our dollars is to try to render the idea of terrorism on American soil undesirable, because you can never make it impossible (Cos used the example of Israel, but Northern Ireland, Basque country, and Sri Lanka hold many parallels).  Good summary.

    sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
    • One one point... so what?

      There are still trash receptacles in the subways.

      And on our streets too.  So what?  Why is this a problem?

      If you wanted to create mass havoc or maximize casualties, you wouldn't put the bomb in a trash can in Park Street Station.  You'd leave it on a green line car, during rush hour.  You'd not only get more blood shed, but you'd also  create more terror because while trash cans can be taken away, you can't have a functioning subway without allowing carry-ons.

      If there's cash to spare, replace the trash bins with super-reinforced bins.  That's cool.  But don't get rid of rubbish receptacles.  There's enough litter already.

      • It's not a problem...

        ... but subutai does have a point.

        I think it's not a problem because I don't think we're facing a serious enough threat that measures like that would make sense.  They're too extreme.  But if we did have weekly bombing attempts, resorting to things like removing public trash cans could be part of a sensible comprehensive strategy to counter them.

        I hope Boston never gets to that point.

      • We already have bomb-proof trash cans on the T

        We already did replace the trash cans on the T with super-reinforced ones, starting in fall of 2001. If you look at the news stories, some people claim that corruption led to the T buying expensive trash cans that aren't actually bomb-proof, but that is a sperate issue.

        • I suspected that was the case...

          but didn't want to accuse the parent of my initial comment of grandstanding, strawman making, or otherwise spewing FUD.

          I don't mind mistakes, but it does bug me when a person writes in an authoritarian tone and turns out to be speaking mistruth to power.

          • Wasn't trying to grandstand

            I'm just going off a conversation with someone I spent a bit of time with in Belfast.  He was no security expert, just someone I met in a bar.  But I maintain that no receptacle is bombproof if the bomb is strong enough, and it isn't that hard to back bombs that strong and that small.

            sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
  8. Don't buy it

    Sorry, I still don't buy it.

    "Well, the fear's already here and probably doesn't need help, but leaving that aside, let's think about what such a person could do."

    This boils down to "we all know what a bomb looks like, and we should look for that." The fact is, we don't, so it's understandable that the authorities needed to be cautious.

    "Boston's freak out started in response to a call about a strange object, and it's highly unlikely that such a call would come in the case of a real terrorist bomb."

    Leaving aside the phrase "freak out," IIRC there been several bomb attempts in Israel that have been thwarted because alert citizens have noticed stange behavior or strange objects. See here for example.

    "Protecting us from terrorist bombs requires that we develop a process for spotting them, not that we react in the extreme to the occasional phone call."

    How was the response "extreme"? If you get a report, you investigate it. Even if you believe that the call doesn't warrant calling out the bomb squad and city workers can check it out, you're still going to have to close the roads for the safety of the workers on ladders and man-lifts.

    Now the arrest of the 2 idiots after the fact was an overreaction, but that's a different debate.

    "Given that, and the fact that years have passed since 9/11 with no bombs going off, the lesson is clear: Nobody's trying!."

    I can't find the most recent numbers, but the FBI Bomb Data Center reported 17,579 between 1988 and 1997. There was at least one pipe (gang related) detonated in RI in 2005. Some idiot exploded a pipe bomb in Stoughton in March 2006. That's just a cursory search.

    People are trying. It's not all "terrorism"-related, but it's no less real and no less dangerous.

    "Why, exactly, did they decide to kick in maximum "protection" when they found that first Mooninite?"

    Have you read the BPD's timeline of the day's events?

    "Turner is not to blame.  The ad agency is not to blame."

    Bull. You Do Not Place Random Electronic Items On Public Infrastructure Without Permission or Without Contact Info. This was true before 9/11 (I know from personal experience) and it's still true today. I can relate all kinds of stories about people getting engineering equipment blown up by bomb squads across the country because they didn't notify anyone it was going to be there.

    "If someone calls about a suspicious object, investigate."

    Agreed. But when that suspicious package is placed overhead near a public transportation ROW, the investigation is going to cause disruption for the worker's safety.

    Just for the record, I am a card carrying liberal (mostly), and I'm the first to criticize the police and authorities for overreacting. But except for the arrests, I just don't see it here. The city didn't call for mass evacuations, Arabs weren't rounded up and tortured. The police were responding to calls about unusual devices on public infrastructure. Combined with the reports they were getting from D.C. and NYC, I don't blame them for being cautious.

    • Thanks for the Boston Police Department Link

      It provides the context that is missing from much of the criticism here.

    • You're argument fails at...

      The fact that there are all sorts of weird things that could be bombs in Boston. We can't stop almost all Boston for all of them. People need to be less stubborn: we should take this as a lesson well learned - we need to go back to the drawing board and create new policies that both keep Bostonians safe (safer clearly than current policy), while not disrupting our liberty to move, work and live in the Hub.

    • You're misusing those quotations

      For example, you quote me:

      "Well, the fear's already here and probably doesn't need help, but leaving that aside, let's think about what such a person could do."

      ... and then you respond:

      This boils down to "we all know what a bomb looks like, and we should look for that."

      The fact is, we don't, so it's understandable that the authorities needed to be cautious.I don't know where you got what this boils down to - I don't see the logical connection between my statement and your interpretation.  However, it should be very clear that your interpretation is directly at odds with a point I made repeatedly throughout my post: that we can't easily spot bombs, because there are so many ways someone could hide a bomb as a common object.  Given that I said that directly and repeatedly, how could you possibly be claiming that an unrelated aside I made earlier in the post actually "boils down to" the opposite?

      So then, "so it's understandable that the authorities needed to be cautious." - how does that refute anything I argued?

      All I'm getting from this comment is that you didn't read what I wrote.

      • Quoted the wrong text

        Sorry about that, I quoted the wrong text! I meant to quote the paragraph starting with "If you want to cause death and destruction and terror with a bomb". I was referring to the implication that people shouldn't have been concerned with the devices because they didn't look like the typical impression of a pipe bomb or backpack bomb, etc.

        Similarly, you wrote:

          Making something with lights and a pattern to draw attention, and hanging it somewhere visible, aren't exactly on a would-be terrorist bomber's priority list.

        which I infer to make the same argument.

        You also wrote:

        blockquote Why did the cartoons lead to a panic when many other things much more likely to be bombs did not?  Because they were weird.  And because they were weird, someone called to report them as being weird.


        It wasn't reported because they were weird, it was because they were weird and the first one spotted one was a roadway support. And the BPD responded not because it was weird, or because it was weird and attached to a highway support, but because it was weird, it was attached to a highway support and they had a report of a threat in D.C.

        • Quoted the wrong text

          (Crud, I also screwed up the HTML. Here's the post again)

          Sorry about that, I quoted the wrong text! I meant to quote the paragraph starting with "If you want to cause death and destruction and terror with a bomb". I was referring to the implication that people shouldn't have been concerned with the devices because they didn't look like the typical impression of a pipe bomb or backpack bomb, etc.

          Similarly, you wrote:

            Making something with lights and a pattern to draw attention, and hanging it somewhere visible, aren't exactly on a would-be terrorist bomber's priority list.

          which I interpreted to make the same argument.

          You also wrote:

          Why did the cartoons lead to a panic when many other things much more likely to be bombs did not?  Because they were weird.  And because they were weird, someone called to report them as being weird.

          It wasn't reported because they were weird, it was because they were weird and the first one spotted one was a roadway support. And the BPD responded not because it was weird, or because it was weird and attached to a highway support, but because it was weird, it was attached to a highway support and they had a report of a threat in D.C.

    • ineffective

      Now, for a more general point: A lot of what you say lies on the assumption that Boston's actions represent a policy that actually does protect us from bombs.  It doesn't.

      It doesn't matter how the city can react, if its reaction is triggerred at random and is most likely to be triggerred when there's no bomb and not be triggerred when there is a bomb.  That's the core of my essay.

      (Which is yet another reason why your comment sounds to me like something written by someone who didn't actually hear what I had to say)

      • Assumptions

        The problem as I see it was that the core of your essay was based on flawed assumptions - the reaction wasn't "triggered at random" for example, and people are trying (and succeeding) in bombing targets in the Boston area and around the country.

        And I don't assume at all that Boston's (or anyone's) policy protects us from anything - I do believe that it is reasonable to expect the police to followup on unusual events (especially if it appears to be part of a pattern) and for that reason I think the BPD's response was proper.

        • random

          Actually, it was random: Not because Boston's policy calls for randomness, but because there's no positive correlation between what objects are likely to be bombs, and what objects are going to result in suspicious object calls.  Since Boston's policy is based on reacting to suspicious object calls, and not reacting to most other objects, the result is random.  There's no positive correlation between the likelyhood of something being a bomb, and the chance of Boston reacting to it.

          • Randomness

            Sure, but by that reckoning, everything that any investigative body does is random since no one knows everything.

            The important question is how the authorities reacted to reports of strange devices - they investigated, and determined that the devices weren't a threat! What else should they have done?

            • *bzzt*

              I can't tell if you're deliberately obfuscating, or genuinely don't get it.  I'll assume the latter, and urge you to re-read and think about it some.

              You're essentially saying that if I call something random because it has no positive correlation at all, that means I would call anything random unless it were 100% certain.

              That is a preposterous claim.

    • the timeline

      I read that timeline earlier today.  I learned one surprising from from it: Boston had investigated the first Mooninite device and found it to be not a bomb at 10:21am.  During the day it happened, based on what I was hearing, I didn't think Boston knew that until the afternoon.

      10:21am was before other Mooninites were reported.  10:20am was before the "pipe bomb" was reported.

      Learning that made me feel much more strongly that Boston screwed up somehow.  If they knew the first device was safe at 10:21am, why didn't the media, the public, and the police officers responding to other calls?

      Another thing this makes clear, but which was not a surprise because I already thought it was the case: Exactly one report of a suspicious object was made unprompted.  All the other reports of suspicious devices in Boston were made after the first incident was in the news.  That should've made Boston realize the very high probability that most of these reports were being prompted by the media, and therefore unlikely to be a sudden spurt of bombs (since they already knew the first one was a bomb).  That doesn't mean "don't investigate", but it does mean "tell the public you don't think there are any bombs, ASAP."  Then keep investigating each report.

      One thing I wanted to find out from the time line, was not there.  I have said that I suspect that it look less than an hour from the time information reached Turner indicating their ads were at the center of this incident, to the time Turner called Boston to tell them so; and that it took more than an hour from the time Turner first called, until Boston finally stopped treating the Aqua Teen ads as a danger.  In other words, my suspicion is that Turner is not at fault for how long this dragged on.  But I don't actually know.

      A complete timeline could've helped figure it out, but this timeline is missing most of the key times:

      1. First photos of Mooninite ads appear in the media: time unknown
      2. People at ad agency or Turner see those photos: time unknown
      3. First call from ad agency to Boston: 4:30pm
      4. Boston finally deciding the Mooninites are just ads: not in the timeline - when did it happen?

      We can't expect the BPD to tell us all of these, but I hope they could include #4 and some hint about #1 (such as, what time did they release a photo)?

      • You'd find out some interesting details

        from the first Boston Globe message board on the topic. The thread was called something like, "Did you see one of the bombs?" or whatever.

        The thread was documented, time-stamped proof that the Internet identified the devices long before the Globe did. Small wonder the Globe either buried or deleted it.

  9. I'll Make an Assumption Here

    Most, and probably all, of those blithely critical of the various agencies' responses are not employed in an occupation where you are called upon to act, without having the luxury of complete information.  My guess is that we have few members of a police department here, few who have seen active duty in Iraq, nor do we have many emergency room physicians. 

    I suspect any one of these folks would be able to give us a more nuanced perspective of what actually happened as the sequence of events transpired. 

    Information comes in from various sources with various degrees of accuracy.  Communication between agencies is sometimes (inevitably) confused.  There are sometimes personality conflicts.  Everyone, at some level, is trying to project and predict what they don't know, while at the same time reacting to what they do.

    Does it all look pretty silly in retrospect?  Sure!  Does that mean that the response was somehow incorrect?  Hmmm...dunno about that one. 

    Some of the commentors here make valid points, but others come across as sneering and puerile.  I am more inclined to cut the police, and other organizations, a bit of slack.  I reserve my complete disdain for the New York marketing folks who at some point mid-day knew exactly what was going on, but did nothing to stop it.

    • $quot;Support the troops$quot;

      That's the "support the troops!" reaction I described in my introduction: that by criticizing a policy that does us no good, what we're actually doing is criticizing the members of the bomb squad, etc., in carrying out their job.

      So I'll say it directly: I don't blame the bomb squad.  I don't blame any individual police officers.  In fact, I don't know if any police officers & civil servants did anything wrong at all.

      When it comes to "organizations", that also includes their directors/chiefs, and their policies.  We can criticize an organization in general without attacking specific individuals.  What I called for is an investigation of the response, so we can find out how the policy we have was implemented, whether anyone did anything wrong, and how to change the policy.

      Please don't imply that means that I personally claim to know every little bit of the chain of events and am ready to attack police officers doing their jobs.  I can support the troops while blasting the policy.

      • Policy

        I was employed by an organization that played a central role as events unfolded on September 11.  At a gut level, I know what it was like in the situation room with too few pieces of the puzzle, but at the same time being required to make decisions. You know from experience that some of these decisions will be "wrong"--you just don't yet know which ones. We were roundly criticized in the ensuing investigations for not doing enough, in the same way the local authorities are sneeringly critiqued for doing too much.  So my default position, not knowing all the particulars, is to cut them some slack

        To address what seems to be the main thrust of your essay, beyond my default position, nothing really jumps out at me from a policy or institutional perspective that looks glaringly wrong.  Police are informed of a number of strange looking devices, at critical transporation locations, within a short period of time.  They reacted.  I can only imagine the (rightful) uproar if they didn't.


    • I had first hand experience with a Mooninite $quot;threat$quot;.

      One was found at my place of business.

      It was found HOURS after the first one at Sullivan Square was destroyed and had been determined to have been no threat. The authorities made that determination at Sullivan Square in 81 minutes.

      So, HOURS later, the bomb squad shows up at my office and spends 4 more HOURS hanging around my business, dusting for fingerprints an so on.

      Do you think that was a good use of resources? 

      Of course they had to come to my place of business to investigate, but someone should explain why 15-30 officials spent 4 hours there making the same determination that was made at Sullivan Sqaure in 81 minutes.

      • a ton of prevention

        seems to me they were using the "ounce of prevention" approach, although their "ounce" felt like a bigger load to you (and your business).

        the trouble i have with your approach, however, is that it presupposes that after the first ad thingie was found to be just an ad thingie, they should have ignored the rest.  of course in hind sight we know that to be true.  but what about this - what if the police took that approach to other types of calls, like the sound of gun shots or of domestic violence through the walls?  they check it out the first time, find no evidence, then just ignore all subsequent calls from the neighbors?  i dont expect you to agree with me on this, but this is a flaw in your approach as i see it.

        • I'm not saying they should have ignored it.

          Though I thought it was painfully obvious the object was not a threat, I don't begrudge them for investigating.

          What I am saying is that it seems to me from my first hand observations and from what I have read elsewhere is that there was some kind of communication breakdown.  The guys at my place seemed to have no idea what was going on in the outside world. Not only did  they spend 4 hours at my location, meaning they didn't wrap it up until the early evening, but WE - not the BPD or Homeland Security were the ones who informed them that it was a marketing scheme.

          When CNN etc were reporting the story, and explaining what ATHF was, the guys here were still asking us questions and requesting fingerprints from us.  Finally, my employee pulled up the CNN on the computer for them - and when they saw it, they all laughed.

          As I have said before, the officials were professional and friendly, but they were really not being kept abreast of the facts, and when you imagine the same thing happening at locations throughout the city, the reasons for the day long panic start to become clearer.

          So, Menino, rather than aiming all his bile at Turner and the boys who put these things up, really ought to look inward at the communication and operational deficiences his administration and the Federal offices displayed that day.

          • the troops vs. the authorities

            Exactly.  You're giving an example of what I've been describing, but I didn't have as good a concrete example of it to illustrate with.  A lot of people were just doing their jobs, and most of them, I suspect, doing their jobs pretty well.  But the system was broken.  Responsibility for a broken system lies with those in charge: both the policies they have in place, and the decisions they made in carrying out the policy.  That's what we need to investigate.

            And by calling for such an investigation, we're not trying to attack the police officers.

  10. Context is always vital.

    1). Where the advertising was placed was the primary difference between the reaction in Boston and that of other cities. According to a summary from the other sites, the LEDs were placed where you could reasonably expect to see advertising. Not in underpasses and transit superstructure where they were viewed as suspicious. I believe only in one other city were they placed in a transit station and it also created a complaint.

    2). The fact that the 'artists' stood there videotaping the response and did not come forward to explain what it was, shows an intention to disrupt or allow the disruption to continue. Especially as the day went on and they did nothing. I'm sorry, but an employer who's paying me all of $300 is not going to be able to tell me to keep quiet and let this continue. Maybe the felony charges should be reduced but an apology? I don't think so.

    3). I generally agree with your argument that the risk of terrorism is way overblown but that doesn't mean it's non-existant. A way to mitigate the risk is a reasonable amount of citizen awareness. If someone observes something suspicious, thank you for calling it in. May they all just be advertising.

  11. Thank you for getting the real point to be learned from this...

    I've been frustrated that much of the reaction from this incident (and others) misses some important points -- some of the exact points you made.  We can't protect ourselves from every real threat, and pretending we can while running around like chickens with our heads cut off not only is a pain in the ass, but it essentially hands victory to the real terrorists.  Think about it; a "war" waged with terror doesn't measure its success by the capture of territory in the traditional way.  Success is measured by how fearful they can make us, and how differently they can get us to act.  They can't win without our cooperation. 

    We could have won the so-called "War on Terror" on 9/12/01 by refusing to be terrorized.

    We need to assess, and act on the basis of, actual risk, not imagined risk.  We have decided that tens of thousands of traffic fatalities, or tens of thousands of gun deaths, or hundreds of thousands of tobacco-related deaths every year is not reason enough to change the way we go about our daily routines; I guess that, as a nation, we have written these preventable deaths off as calculated risks.  I don't mean there is no risk to anyone from terrorists -- whoever and wherever they may be -- but living day-to-day in "panic first, ask questions later" mode is too high a cost to pay for a threat that has killed fewer than three thousand Americans in more than five years.

    Thanks again for the thought you put into this.

    • $quot;Actual Risk$quot;

      I agree with your inclination to quantify risk.  The trouble is, I don't see any realistic way to quantify risk here.  Bridge bombs, sure.  You could grind through the numbers and possibly argue that authorities shouldn't react to strange devices hanging from bridges (though I would love to see how that works politically!). 

      However, nobody is under any impression that the kids blowing themselves up in the middle east just so they can take a few dozen market-goers with them, wouldn't much prefer a bigger enchilada, say, taking out an American city.  When you consider the dire consequences of an intelligence mis-step, the rational course to take is to over-react, rather than the alternative. 

      One aside (not to you personally, shiltone): the national media, and indeed the original poster used the word "panic" pretty liberally when referring to this incident.  I was downtown at the time, and my observations of others was anything but.  Folks actually seemed fairly blase, considering all the activity, and all the unknowns.

      • The panic was confined mostly to the mayor's office

        and the media, which steadfastly refused to report such data points as, for instance, the 9-to-1 ratio of boston.com commenters who felt the city was making an ass of itself.

        You could grind through the numbers and possibly argue that authorities shouldn't react to strange devices hanging from bridges (though I would love to see how that works politically!). 

        The over-reliance on straw is a hallmark of an argument already lost.

        No one is arguing that 911 should hang up the phone on reports of suspicious devices. But it took the experts less than an hour and a half to determine that the device hanging on the bridge (most were not on bridges, or anywhere near "infrastructure") was not an explosive. That fact was already in the news before the city's involuntary peristalsis set in.

        When you consider the dire consequences of an intelligence mis-step, the rational course to take is to over-react, rather than the alternative.

        Only when you pause to consider the dire consequences of overreacting to everything do you understand that overreaction is not even an alternative.

  12. A couple of things:

    "Let's focus on the real issues: ·What threat are we trying to protect ourselves from? ·How serious is that threat? .......We're not facing a serious threat." ~Cos 

    While I agree that the recent alleged bomb threats in Boston could have been handled better, I'm not in agreement that we aren't facing serious threats.

    the fact that years have passed since 9/11 with no bombs going off, the lesson is clear: Nobody's trying!. ~Cos

    The WTC was first bombed in 1993, and then 8 years later it was destroyed. In light of our recent Iraq adventures, some have argued that we are now more likely to be attacked at home, I agree with that assessment. When and how it will happen, I don't know, but I won't be surprised if it does happen. The lesson is not "clear" to me that "nobody's trying" to do it. That doesn't mean that I live my life in fear, quite the opposite. It just means that I recognize that people who want to blow up American cities are probably working with longer timelines than folks posting on BMG. And just for the record, I would include Tim McVeigh nutcases just as much as I would any foreign threats.

    ...The only true way to protect your city from terrorist bombs is to have a political & social situation in which terrorists aren't trying to plant bombs.  That's what we have here in Boston. ~Cos

    That's true I suppose, if you're saying that by being good neighbors to NH & RI we're preventing residents of those states from wanting to bomb us. But since we're also residents of the U.S., and there are a bunch of other people in the world who might like to set off a dirty bomb in say Harvard Square, it should be on our radar. Again, I hope it never happens, but I'm sure as hell not going to think that it can't happen, since we already  know that there are people who would like it to happen. I'm not in law enforcement or anything related, but from what I've read there are obvious targets that could be exploited around greater Boston, including LNG Tankers and medical facilities that could be used for dirty bombs .I don't know how serious a threat it is, but I'm not going to dismiss it because no one's done it yet. Our local geography, infrastructure & population centers are unique, so I can't accept a premise that we're not under serious threat merely because we compare favorably to the situation in Israel & GB, or because we don't need armed guards stopping every car that comes in from RI.

    I'm all for improving our processes and readiness, but by denying that a serious threat exists, and then claiming that the processes in place are unnecessary & are causing us to suffer, you're undermining the rest of your recommendations.

    • context

      Look, my case isn't that there's nobody in the world who wants to do us harm.  Nor is it that a bomb in Boston is impossible.

      My case is this: Planting a bomb in Boston is doable, highly likely to be successful, and we have no process in place to effectively counter it.  And yet, we haven't had any bombs.  That means only one thing: Boston doesn't face a serious risk of bombs.  Whoever wants to do us harm either can't get here, or isn't motivated enough, or has other targets in mind, or maybe just doesn't want it very much.

      You're right, there are a lot of targets... that haven't been attacked, despite so many of them being completely unprotected.

      That doesn't mean it's never going to happen.  It does mean that under current conditions, it's a very small risk: if it happens at all, it'd be rare.

      I described the sort of process we might need to put in place if we actually did face a high risk of bombs: something that actually would prevent a lot of bomb plants from succeeding, unlike our current policy.  But under current conditions, the cost of such a policy outweighs the risk to such an extreme amount, that I not only don't think we should do it, I don't think we could do it - people wouldn't cooperate with the constant expense and annoyance and hassle of it all.

      So, we have something in place that doesn't require people to cooperate voluntarily every day of their lives.  It just disrupts the city on special, mostly random occasions.  And it has no value, at all, beyond crying wolf (thus reducing our preparedness for a real incident).

    • You just undercut

      your own argument:

      The WTC was first bombed in 1993, and then 8 years later it was destroyed...It just means that I recognize that people who want to blow up American cities are probably working with longer timelines than folks posting on BMG.

      Are they "working with longer timelines" because they want to? Wouldn't Osama bin Laden have preferred to bomb the U.S. every year--heck, every month--between '93 and '01?

      He wasn't "waiting" 8 years for the second attack. That was as fast as he could go. Because--bottom line--we just do not have enough murderous nutjobs in this country who also have the means and opportunity to attack us anytime they want.

      If we did, they would have already. It's that simple.

      Will we be hit again? Probably, although not inevitably--unless, of course, instead of behaving sensibly we spend the next 8 years running around like idiots.

      • I think that you are mistaken

        I was replying to this point by Cos:

        the fact that years have passed since 9/11 with no bombs going off, the lesson is clear: Nobody's trying!. ~Cos

        I'm  saying that just because we haven't been bombed in 6 years doesn't mean "nobody" is/was trying. I believe that they have longer timelines, and historically speaking, 6 years is not a long time. They may have a reason for waiting. I don't know what their thinking is, and neither do you.

        And secondly, you're saying that we'll inevitably be bombed again, unless we do whatever it is that you deem sensible? OK, that's pretty funny. Good one.


    • I'll take my chances

      The Tim McVie//Osama bin Laden nutcases of the world may be able to strike us every 5-10 years at some American City. Reasonable measures can and should be taken to protect us from that - but those measures can't block free access to and from our cities (and homes and work). The gridlock of that day wasn't only an annoyance: it was an attack on our liberty - our liberty and ability to persue happiness.

      If there were weekly/monthly or even yearly attacks in Boston, then maybe such an overreaction would be necessary. There isn't.

      However, there are very real threats that strike on a daily basis. With more than 70 murders a year in Boston, lots of people are dying. Yet, only half of those murders are resolved. Who would want to bet that the kind of effort put into protecting us from cartoon Mooninites could bump the conviction rate up to 75-90% when it comes to murders in Boston, thus removing the most violent people from our streets? Who'd want to bet that if these police were able to track down the worst drug sellers, gang leaders, etc. etc. etc. we could make real progress in REALLY protecting our city??

      Our capital city really does face lots of theats, every day. However, the threats don't come from international terrorists. They come from the violent crime that's taking place in that city every day. Yet, Mayor Mumbles is doing everything he can to deflect the attention from that arena onto other issues. It's time the city own up to its deficiencies and do whatever it takes to make it a safe city to live, work and play in.

      That's the lesson everyone should take here. That's what this horrendous overreaction really exposes. That people aren't talking about these issues suggests that we just don't really care about the people who are being effected by terrible violence every day - and instead only care about our commutes and crazy 9/11 non-sensical hysteria.

  13. Well said!

    What sort of stupid terrorist would stick cartoons with flashing lights onto their bridge-targeting bombs anyway?

    • the real thing

      well of course any real future bomber should make their bombs look like stupid cartoon ads, because they know there is now political pressure for the city to ignore them.

      • Holy Batman, Batman!

        But seriously, what should I do if I see some lite-brite type thing up on a bridge now?  I'm going wait until something turns out to be a bomb before worrying about it, because otherwise I'm going to worry about everything, not just things that look like ads.

        But I do think that we should have a new law that severely fines anyone and any company that purposefully puts up ads, or anything that isn't supposed to be there, whether or not they look like bombs, and set up a hotline number to report them.  If I could get a ten dollar reward for reporting some dumb guerilla marketing ad, I'd call it in. 

      • i would suggest the opposite

        but regardless, the tune "paranioa, paranoia, everyone is coming to get me" comes to mind.

        There are soooooooooooo many things that could hide bombs that shouldn't be where they are. There are so many places to be hiding bombs.

        Yet, I don't see bombs going off on a regular basis. Seems like everything's pretty safe. Therefore, I'm going to live my life with an easy mind. It makes no sense to start seeing things that just aren't there.

        The police are right to investigate what could be there, but they need to do it in a way that doesn't disrupt our daily lives - or at least make it so any disruptions are exceptionally minimal and warranted through key hard evidence.

        Otherwise, American Democracy is dead.

        • it is pretty rank

          to accuse people of paranoia because they disagree with you on this.  you may have reasonable points, but i won't read past the crap, so they're lost on me.

          • I see your search for offense in every comment

            is going well. Enjoy.

          • it's not an insult

            it's a critique. I think the philosophy of 'let's shut down the city for every potential threat' is paranoid. Boston's reaction to the lite-brite mooninites was seriously overblown - to applaud it is paranoid. That's not supposed to be an insult, just a critique.

            If you read on, you would have realized that. Ignorance, however, is bliss. Let's go burn some books or something.

            • then critique the appropriate people

              who ever said shut down the whole city of every potential threat?  not me.  if you want to critique the 'shut it all down' crowd, fine, but don;t attribute views to those who don't espouse them.

  14. Dangerous Times

    Cos, like everyone I would like to complement you on this article. Well written and well thought out. However I disagree that because nothing has happened regarding terrorist bombings on American soil that no body is trying. Not since WWII have the citizens of our country felt so threatened in their very homes. We know people were trying then to attack us at home, but how successful were they. Not very if I am correct. The Bush administration has created a worldwide climate of hate towards America. I will take a leap here and say because they know what they have done (Will wonders never cease) they realize they have to break every rule in the book to make sure nothing does happen. So there appear to be no terrorist attacks, but what is our government doing to prevent them that worries me.

    You always get me thinking. Thanks 

    • narrow the scope

      I'm not talking about "on American soil" or about all the people in the world, I'm talking about Boston.  It's not the role of the City of Boston to worry about someone in Pakistan plotting to try to bomb some west coast North American city, for example - and our city's reaction to a suspicious object certainly has nothing to do with countering that particular threat.

      So rather than grandiose overblown fear, let's focus on Boston for a moment, and what connection Boston's actions have to any threat they might possibly be designed to counter.

      The threat: That someone would plant a bomb in Boston to kill, destroy, and/or cause fear.

      • Anyone who tried, would probably succeed.
      • A response by Boston of the sort we saw to the Mooninite "attack" has almost no chance of preventing or stopping it.
      • It hasn't happened yet, not even once.

      That's what I'm saying.  That's what we ought to draw conclusions from.  One of those conclusions is that we don't face much of a threat, because if anyone really wanted to they could do it and we wouldn't stop them, and yet years have passed without it happening.

      • Thanks for continuing this thread.

        You've distilled your position down to a point where I can see that we won't be able to agree:

        One of those conclusions is that we don't face much of a threat, because if anyone really wanted to they could do it and we wouldn't stop them, and yet years have passed without it happening.

        For reasons that I've already stated, I don't agree with your conclusion that because we haven't been bombed yet, we therefore don't face much of a threat.  That's the crux of this discussion for me, so rather than belabor the point,  I'll leave it there.

    • Fearful Times

      Not since WWII have the citizens of our country felt so threatened in their very homes.

      You have a point, but to me it's a different point than the one you were trying to make.

      Yes, Americans do feel very threatened now, but they shouldn't.  The danger simply isn't that high.  Americans are still at far more risk from a multitude of other things: crime, traffic, pollution, lack of health care, loss of income, all sorts of things that hit many more Americans every year than terrorist bombs have in sum total throghout history.  Things that kill, injure, and disable us and our friends and family.  Compared to them, terrorist bombs barely rate on the scale.  And that's even if you include massive attacks like 9/11, which are not what we're talking about here.  The prevailing political & media culture of today spreads fear and panic over the possibility of terrorists coming over to plant bambs, and it's simply not justified.  Don't be afraid.

      Now I'll also point out that on a purely factual level, your statement is incorrect.  When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, we still had the cold war.  The culture of fear was much more pervasive and oppressive then, than anything we see now.  We were all feeling threatened, in our very homes, more so than today.

      • I take a slightly contrary view

        about whether or not Americans should feel threatened. I think we should be concerned about the possibility of bombings and take steps to prevent them, and I agree that the media overhypes the fear. However, IMHO the bigger threat is the loss of civil liberties that we are experiencing and the undermining of trust that is required to maintain civil society. It seems that we are incapable of both taking prudent measure to protect ourselves, and preserving our freedoms. It shouldn't be either or. This loss of freedom troubles me much more than the threat of bombings, and makes me more pissed  off than afraid.

        Coincidently I also grew up in the 70's & 80's and I recall the Cold War as more of a remnant of the 50's & 60's than any impending threat.  It certainly still existed, and I took no comfort in the thought of  Ronald Reagan with his shaky hand on The Button", but any fear that I had was probably more of a nuclear accident (IE Chernobyl, 3 Mile Island) than of Armageddon. br Today, with the current leadership in the White House, I feel much more threatened, both in aGeorge Orwell, Big Brother' sense, and in a `I've got family members coming and going to Iraq for what?' sense.  Again, more anger than fear, but still much more threatened than I ever remember being during the end of the Cold War.

      • Fearful Times

        Cos, I agree Boston did not handle this well. That much of the mainstream media does spread fear. More people are killed by soda vending machines falling on them then have been killed by terrorist attacks in the U.S. over the last 6 or 7 years. I love my country for the ideals I believe it stands for, but I am outraged by our foreign policy. In the beginning Bush and his clowns created this terrorist fear for their own ends. Now by their self-serving ways they have made it real. I am not scared for myself, but for my children. We better learn from the Israelis or completely reverse our foreign policy. I would prefer we rethink our foreign policy then our security methods. You cannot treat the rest of the world as we do and not expect retribution. 

        The Cold War era was about the possibility of the U.S. and Russia destroying themselves and the rest of the world in a nuclear war. The U.S and Russia were the dominant super powers in the world. Mutual assured destruction was the predicated outcome. A strong sense of fear and paranoia were present in both countries populations. In WWII we were facing Germany & Japan. We were not considered a world power at this time in history. In fact I do not believe we cracked the top 15 internationally. There were submarines off our coastlines and spies in our cities ready to strike at us. In the Cold War a siren went off to let you know missiles had been launched against us. In WWII there were no warnings. With that said both moments in history evoked terror, but I do not think one time was worse then the other.

  15. Random panic

    makes it easier for them to ramp up the levels of fascism in this country.  It makes the point that you must obey, observe, report, conform.  Seig f-ing Heil! Question. Have you been able to get through even a single day without hearing "in this post 911 world" from talking heads who deliver "news" in a manner geared towards 12 years olds? I want to live dangerously, I don't want homeboy security.  I don't want the 666 implantable beast chip and I love to have fun with the NSA guys trolling my internet posts. Depleted uranium!

  16. (please delete that comment)

    Sorry, my HTML got mucked up thanks to a cat distracting me.  I can't edit it, so I'll recomment.  Please give that comment some 0's so it goes away.  Thanks.

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