Thursday, February 01, 2007

Shouting in a movie theatre

Full scale urban warfare has not yet come to American cities and the average citizen is not yet exposed to the realities of the battle field that people of other countries recognize as a part of daily life. Hopefully, it never will be. I doubt that our cities will be immune from an increase in that activity for long. It is possible that someday soon a trip to the mall will be a risky prospect. The only reason I believe that is from my firmly held belief that any modern, industrialized and technologically advanced country can fix any problem if they truly want to. For example, if the American public, government and business really did not want illegal immigration or rampant insurance fraud to occur it wouldn't. There is profit in allowing certain things to occur. If American cities someday come to resemble a crater-scarred urban landscapes it is because we, the people, allowed it.

Don't confuse that statement with any opinion of the the War on Terror, either. What I mean is, there is something wrong with a system that allows two different, unrelated people supposedly born several years apart, who entered the country via geographically different ports years separate from the other, who lived in different areas of the country yet can walk in together into my office one day looking for employment, who possess social security numbers differing only by the final digit. Imagine the odds against that. Now try to calculate the odds against those final digits being different by only one sequential number. Furthermore, since they have the "proper" documents we can not report or investigate that their proofs of identification are not forged or being used inappropriately. That shenanigans like that are allowed means there is a reason for it other than incompetence, usually connected to someone making a huge profit.

It is fully understandable that response agencies treated the recent guerrilla advertising gimmick of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force cartoon with caution. It is a common tactic to hide bombs in innocuous or familiar, non-threatening objects. The idea of the Trojan Horse goes way back.

But like many I will have to take to task the media for making what should have been a minor note of concern into a major issue. Officials did the right thing in investigating but the media acted like a school of sharks that smelled blood in the water. They participated in an frenzy of fear-mongering and perpetuating a panic for the sake of 20 seconds of a ratings spike. There were many broadcasts that reported the ad displays as "fake bombs", which is not what they were at all. In watching the broadcasts my critique of the the reporters is that they were unhinged and absolutely delighted at the prospect that the Lite-Brite devices may have been explosives. Their initial reporting was merely Part 1 of a series. If the devices were hazardous then their primary reporting would have smoothly flowed into Part 2, then Emmy Awards and Pulitzers would have followed. Unfortunately for them and their story, Part 2 turned out to be a non-event and that is where their series fell apart. To note the obvious, perhaps in the future it would be better to report on what actually happens and not what might happens.

It was interesting to observe in broadcasts that the media censored the upraised middle "finger" of a cartoon character that had a "hand" consisting of three pixel blocks. It was further amusing to see that the blurring of the offending gesture was creating by utilizing circles. Someone cleverly realized that pixelating the image would probably have still revealed the gesture.

Now that the reality behind the devices is revealed the media has to create and perpetuate a new story. They do this in a manner that is equally dangerous in the entire event afterwards one to be ridiculed. The other side of the wingnut spectrum is now getting a lot of airtime. Now individuals that completely dismiss the idea that what officials did was wrong, over-reacted and that everyone else who was concerned about the devices and the ensuing event was stupid are getting their say. They are letting the "fact" be repeated that in other cities the Mooninite devices were in place for several weeks without being noticed or commented upon by citizens. What does that have to do with the price of cheese in Nebraska? As the politically-motivated escalation of the government Terror Threat Alert levels has revealed, playing up fear leads to desensitization. Doing the opposite has the same effect.

People forget that there are bad guys out there and they are all over the place. These damaged creatures put toxic powder in envelopes and mail them. They place explosives in boxes, trash cans, backpacks, toys and flashlights and put them in public places. So it was a good thing that the devices, when eventually noticed, were called in and people took appropriate actions. Bad was the media frenzy.

Somewhere in the middle will be the rational people who will notice something amiss, report it and equally rational officials will investigate and resolve or escalate a situation as it is required. Sadly, they don't run the country.



  1. Informing the city government when you're going to clamp electronic devices on the underside of bridges is really not something to skip. The ones here in NYC weren't put in such stupid places, but the PR firm notified City Hall and the NYPD if anyone had called 911 here, there still wouldn't have been the same panic because all parties behaved appropriately.

    I see a lot of people online saying "those morons in Boston, everyone knows Aqua Teen Hunger Force" -- and that's just simply not true -- but I did pass one of them every day for like two weeks and never thought twice about it, probably because it was next to a billboard for Adult Swim. And only now does it occur to me in retrospect that, yeah, actually, that would have been a good way to camoflage an explosive. Someone reporting such a device is not being a total fool.

    (And may I add, my fear of terrorism in American cities has nothing to do with foreign radicals. The public and the news media seem to forget that we've always had plenty of the home-grown variety...)

  2. "I see a lot of people online saying "those morons in Boston, everyone knows Aqua Teen Hunger Force" -- and that's just simply not true"

    Only Boston freaked out, of all the cities where so many of the things were distributed. When only one city out of many freaks out, the idea that the devices were threatening doesn't stand up to the test of reasonableness. Boston's reaction was a clear outlier.

    Furthermore, eight weeks ago the streets were full of gadgets with lights and wires --- Christmas decorations.

    A light-up santa left on a sidewalk in a shopping district or in a shop window would make a far more effective bomb, and probably wouldn't have elicited *any* attention whatsoever. Same for pumpkins at Halloween.

    What happened in Boston was that the cops overreacted, quickly went public with their overreaction, then couldn't back down and lose face. So they kept ramping it up to the point where they're calling the Mooninites 'hoax bombs', when they weren't a hoax, they were *entirely genuine marketing devices*. There was *no* effort to deceive.

    Even the 'wasted police time' is hypocritical of the mayor, since last year during a convention of police chiefs he pulled over 10% of the force off their beats and made them entertain, chauffer, and otherwise attend to the visiting police chiefs, for several days. And he joked about how the city would never be able to afford it.

  3. Absoluely, the panic in Boston was entirely the fault of the police and city government. My point in the line you quoted was simply that not everyone knows what the Aqua Teen Hunger Force is but some folks online have declared that innocent passersby who called in to report these things were fools for not immediately recognizing the image of a pretty obscure cartoon character...and that's a dumb thing to say.

  4. Leaving aside the Boston PD's response, I agree with Sleestak re: the media's reaction to this.

    The 24-hour cable news networks lost me years ago. Instead of reporting on the vast amount of stuff going on in this country and the rest of the world, they pick up a few stories and grind away on them hour after hour after hour. And the breaking news coverage: the vast majority is talking heads speculating on what may or may not be going on, punctuated by the anchors repeating the few facts they do know over and over. They are simply incapable of letting go of the story at hand when it would better serve their viewers to report something else and then come back only when new information adds to the story.


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