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February 02, 2007

Does this Mooninite LED look like a bomb to you?

1-31-07, originally uploaded by ltlblugrl.

Guerilla marketing caused a bomb scare in Boston yesterday. Turner Broadcasting hired some guys to scatter Mooninite Lite-brites around town. All hell broke loose when Bostonians mistook these trinkets for bombs. Roads were blocked off, subway traffic stopped, traffic snarled and citizens panicked.

Adweek describes what happened:

Major disruptions occurred throughout metropolitan Boston, beginning at 8 a.m., and then in the afternoon, as calls came in about suspicious-looking devices attached to bridges, roadways and even at an MBTA bus station.


The first suspicious package was found shortly after 8 a.m. EST Wednesday on Interstate 93 north in Boston. The package, which was attached to a steel beam, led to a closure of the busy highway during the height of rush hour; two hours later, the city's bomb squad blew it apart. It later was determined to be harmless but constructed similarly to an improvised explosive device.

As you can see from the photograph, these thingies don't look like your stereotypical bomb. So, why the massive overreaction?

The devices were installed in public places where people should be on the alert for suspicious activities including the subway, bus stations, and under bridges.

I found myself wondering whether any of those who sounded the alarm were veterans of the Iraq war.

I just don't see why the average person would be alarmed by these gadgets, but it wouldn't surprise me if someone who had spent months dodging IEDs of all shapes and sizes might be a hyper-sensitive to anything that looked as if it might explode.

One of the symptoms of PTSD is overreaction to harmless stimuli that trigger memories of traumatic events.

A recent study by the Justice Department found that 11,380 law enforcement officers had been called up to serve in Iraq from the reserves. According to the report 23% of all police departments had at least one officer sent off to Iraq. The study didn't say how many of reservist police officers have returned to their civilian policing jobs after serving in Iraq.

Obviously, vets saw these contraptions when they were placed in other towns. So we couldn't draw a direct line between combat stress and the Boston debacle, even if we knew that people who served were involved in the massive institutional overreaction. On the other hand, mass hysteria is like a forest fire. Even when there's a lot of dry timber, a fire won't break out unless a spark happens to ignite.

This is just a hypothesis that I hope to investigate further. The psychic trauma of combat is being felt throughout our society in ways that we're only just beginning to appreciate. We already know of many cases in which combat stress/PTSD contributed to suicides, murders, and other tragedies. Maybe it also played a role in this wildly overblown bomb scare.

On the other hand, maybe the Boston authorities just screwed up.


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I blogged about this! Whether they look like bombs to a reasonable person is an interesting and potentially outcome-determinative question in this case, although it looks like, if the tria judge's comments reflect the law correctly, the mens rea requirement might scuttle the prosecution first.

Maybe my liberal credentials will take a hit but my first, second and continuing reaction is better safe than sorry.

I think the liberal reaction is that it's good to be careful. Calling the bomb squad to investigate was prudent. Yet, somehow the whole city got shut down by a stimulus that passed completely unnoticed in the rest of the country.

Suspicious packages get destroyed by bomb squads every day. Normally these incidents don't cause mass panics.

"Maybe my liberal credentials will take a hit but my first, second and continuing reaction is better safe than sorry."
i've actually heard quite a lot of liberals saying things like this. but the outrageous thing is not THAT boston law enforcement reacted, but HOW they reacted. shutting down the entire city spoke not just to BPD's ignorance (the ad is very very clearly not a bomb), but also to their complete inability to INVESTIGATE a threat of this sort before shitting their pants. i understand that nobody objects to security, but this was shoddy and shockingly poor police work. it's not just "the culture of fear" that concerns me here. it's the culture of police who simply do not know how to do their jobs.

But you went to Tufts, right? You've seen the streets in the Boston area in the winter, they're filled with crap. I collected six bungie cords once in a single ten-mile bike ride, and that's just useful stuff. If the liberal reaction is that it's good to be careful, we'd never stop picking stuff up.

And if you count dead bodies, terrorism, especially with explosives, is not exactly high on our list of problems that we could be solving.

It surprises me that the Boston Police freaked out like this. I lived in Boston and I wouldn't be surprised if ordinary beat cops had no clue how to respond. On the other hand, when I trained as an EMT just after 9/11, we got a tutorial about Boston's various bomb squads as part of our unit on disaster management. It sounded like the actual explosives experts were very well-trained. IIRC, they had a bomb squad just for the subway and another for the harbor, in addition to their general bomb disposal officers. Maybe they've gone downhill, or maybe their capabilities were exaggerated, I don't know. Or maybe the bomb disposal people did their job and higher-ups overreacted. It's impossible to say.

I certainly hope there will be an official investigation into the whole mess.

First, I really think the picture at the top of the post gives a completely misleading impression of how suspicious the devices could look. Seen in indoor lighting with their battery pack open with 4 gleaming Duracells and held by a smiling woman, they look just like a LiteBrite toy even if you've never watched Aqua Teen Hunger Force. But seen in outdoor light with the battery pack taped up into an undefined rectangular block and in some bizarre location, for example,

1) dangling above the busway off some wires below an I-93 overpass (I believe this was the first device to which police responded)
(Picture from a slideshow by WBZ Channel 4 Boston:,


2) on a bridge support
(Picture from a slideshow by ABC Channel 5 Boston),

I can easily imagine how someone who doesn't watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force could have thought the devices were some crazy person's bombs.

Then, once the police get multiple calls, I can easily imagine how they overreact and start closing off roads as they investigate.

Second, in understanding the overreaction it's worth considering the apparent timeline:

10 am -- the device depicted in item #1 above is detonated by State Police (not Boston Police). As such, though clearly people got a good look at the device, no one apparently held it in their hands and saw it was just a LiteBrite with a battery pack.

1 am -- Boston Police claim they get calls about 4 separate areas essentially simultaneously. By the end of the hour, they're dispatched to 9 separate areas.

Third, a question: Does anyone know just how long the devices were in Boston? I know Turner is claiming that the ad campaign has been going on for weeks, but I haven't seen a clear statement of how long the devices---especially the ones on major transportation arteries---were present.

Boston has one of the least effective police forces in the country, so it is entirely possible that they simply screwed up. And while a reaction is good, overreacting and then lashing out at innocent people to save face is disturbing and corrupt. Leaders need to take responsibility and not try to charge someone for terrorism when littering is the most they are guilty of.

Doesn't look like a harmful device to me. But I have experience in both electronics as well as psychology, and can understand the conditioned response of the public to be suspicious as probably the right thing to do, yet steeped in some sort of post 9/11 fear response mode for sure.

There is supposed to be zoning, licensing and other public interest regulations on normal signs that would have prevented all of these problems with dealing with a strange and unknown object. Guerilla advertising artists once placed bomblike looking wires in newspaper boxes before to promote MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, another irresponsible act.

About all government can do is hit businesses with big fines for creating problems and ignoring normal sign regulations when they create a needless public panic and make sure those two jokers who want to joke about their 70's hair get just enough jail time to realize that the problems they caused weren't all that funny.

There's nothing wrong with being creative. But normal regulations dealing with signs are written with public safety and order in mind.

I picked this picture because it looks more bomb-like than most of the shots in the regular media. What kind of bomb looks like a circuit board with a cartoon character on it? I bet you could carry one of those unwrapped, through airport security.

If you see it in situ, it just looks like another illuminated sign. Close-up you can see the batteries sticking out. That's the most bomb-like aspect of the whole thing.

That the Boston police freaked out is not what bothers me. Bomb squads make a point of going through the motions in all but the most obviously harmless cases.

What bothers me is that once they realized what actually happened, they started blaming the artists for it all, as if this was what the artists intended to happen. Boston authorities are either insane for believing this, or vindictive liars for pretending to believe it. I suspect the latter.

This ad campaign started two weeks ago with 20 signs placed around Boston, Somerville and Cambridge. That's a very sparse thread. Another 18 signs were put up Monday nite with a focus on strategic infrastructure including one on an I-93 overpass near a T station. It was this sign that was first reported by an MBTA transit worker around 10:00 Wednesday morning. Transit workers, cops and the like are train to report things like electronic devices attached to overpasses and bridges.

From 93 in the daylight you couldn't tell what it was. From the top of the overpass all that could be seen was a panel somewhat larger than a laptop with protruding wires attached to batteries -- In other words not your stereotypical handbill. Again, in the daylight the image was not clearly recognizable.

Reports of similar objects came in from unidentified citizens around 1:00pm just after the story had broken during the noon new hour. One of the street teamers who put up the signs started freaking out and emailed Interference Inc., the company that had contracted his services. Interference emailed him back saying (paraphrasing) "pretty please don't saying anything. my boss said keep it on the DL."

A couple of hours later it became overcast and the true purpose of the signs became clear to BPD. Almost simultaneously (and after they had sat on their hands for too long), Interference called their contact at the Cartoon Network to say, "Umm, I think we have a little problem in Boston." Another :90 or so later Turner called Boston authorities to explain what had happened. BPD had already figured it out.

In six out of nine cities, no signs were placed on any infrastructure. In Chicago and Philly, there were less than a handful of signs on obsolete train trestles and two on the same block as a transit station. Only in Boston did the street teamers so conscientiously follow Interference's explicit instructions to "place these signs on overpasses, high visibility, high traffic areas."

If Interference Inc. had taken responsibility and action in a timely manner much of this could have been avoided.
Instead they went underground and let Turner face the music. Interference knew better they just didn't think things through. I've run nationwide "guerilla" marketing campaigns including some in Boston going back 20+ years.
There is a strict code re: what you can do, where you can do it, how it can be done and too often who has to do it for you. It is illegal to place advertising on public infrastructure certainly without notifying officials (which they didn't) -- most especially when said advertising is not obviously an ad and features protruding wire and batteries. This never should have made it out of the initial brainstorming session.

The BPD, FBI, etc, did their jobs following their training and a strict protocol. Menino, Coakley & co. looked damn silly with overreacting after the fact. However, consider if someone thoughtlessly pulled what they felt was a harmless prank on you. You understandably thought this represented a threat to you and your family. You're scared to death. Thoughtless pranksters realize this joke has been wildly misinterpreted yet leave you hanging for most of the day 'cuz their too chicken to fess up. I'd be absolutely fucking ripshit. Now imagine you're responsible for 6 million people...


That's the nub of it. Feel free to wade thru the various stories if ya don't believe me. I'm far too tired to post all of the links.

These are very tough calls to make, but the bottom line is that overreactions like this - including the mayor's apeshit, PR-driven ranting after the fact - only serves the ends of terrorists.

It inures part of the citizenry to real threats - the cry wolf syndrome - while putting others unnecessarily on edge. We really are our own worst enemy in many respects.

"On the other hand, maybe the Boston authorities just screwed up."


Sven has it exactly right. 'Better safe than sorry' assumes there is no cost to overreacting and that we can excuse this kind of behavior because it's 'meant to keep us safe'. The folks encouraging the drawer-soiling (Mayor Mumbles and the Boston media) have incentive$ to behave the way they do (funding from the Feds and ratings, among others) - we need to call 'em on it. Grow a set and stop being terrah-rized.

"Obviously, vets saw these contraptions when they were placed in other towns. So we couldn't draw a direct line between combat stress and the Boston debacle, even if we knew that people who served were involved in the massive institutional overreaction."

I think mass panics have been shown to be sensitive to initial conditions, in roughly the same way that chaos theory teaches us that weather, for any given time period, is sensitive to intial conditions. I think with mass panics, how the first few people react to the stimuli has a disproportionate effect on the rest of the people react to the stimuli.

A calm and measured appraisal is always important. Recently I was passing through Grover's Mill, New Jersey, when I saw what looked to me like a terrorist bomb in a field. I went to the local police, and they were able to confirm in short order that it was only an odd, cylindrical-shaped meteorite. As for the affair in Boston, that would been forgivable perhaps in the months after 9/11; today, the authorites just look foolish, irresponsible, and incompetent.

You know, glib or not, Bush is right. America IS paying a psychic price for this war every day.

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