The Boston LED Party
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about legal and extra-legal responses to fear, so I’ve followed last week’s commentary about the Boston Mooninite scare with some interest.
The media’s influence on public fears is well documented, and it will be interesting to see how the “new media” play into or help defuse these fears. Some blogs are not handling this story well, and in particular I disagree with what many techie/lefty/civil-libertarian bloggers have had to say. Many of these bloggers are people I tend to agree with a lot of the time, which has led me to wonder why I don’t this time.
First, some have said that the Boston Police overreacted by shutting down parts of the city. These were kids publicizing a cartoon, after all! I admit that I’m untrained in bomb identification, but I’m guessing so are most of the other people who have commented. Why is it so hard to believe that a circuit board with batteries, wires, and a few other components (pictured above) might look like a bomb to a reasonable bomb expert? Shouldn’t Turner Broadcasting have even considered the possibility? Shouldn’t they have thought of consulting the authorities before taking three dozen of these things and attaching them to public places (including a bridge)? Is it really a surprise that the police assumed the worst?
(And yes, I know that some other cities’ police departments didn’t react this way when faced with the same devices. Less publicity has been given to the police departments that have corroborated Boston’s reaction. It proves to me only that reasonable police departments may differ.)
To their credit, some bloggers recognized that criticizing the immediate police response might reflect a hindsight bias. But convinced that something worthy of criticism or ridicule happened here, many went in search of other critiques.
The dominant narrative strategy has been to criticize not the immediate police response but the ensuing investigation. Prosecutors and politicians have been portrayed as engaging in a witch hunt. Armchair lawyers have been busily dissecting criminal codes pontificating about the weaknesses of the charges that have been filed.
I’m much more sympathetic to the prosecution. Something went awry in the execution of this stunt, and it sends the wrong message if it goes unpunished, much less uninvestigated. Isn’t a healthy dose of deterrence warranted in a case like this (assuming there’s a law on the books that colorably applies)? Deterring copycat acts seems especially necessary because even with the legal difficulties—or perhaps because of them—some have proclaimed this to be an “unqualified success” of guerilla marketing.
I’m not arguing that the charges that have already been brought are winners. The early evidence suggests that the two men arrested were pawns hired by Turner Broadcasting, so perhaps the focus should be on the Corporation or its executives. Nor am I arguing for prison sentences; a hefty fine and a criminal conviction are probably enough.
This brings me back to my search for why I disagree with the blogger backlash to this story. In some ways, I think these bloggers couldn’t help themselves. This story triggered so many stock fears and fads: claims of terrorism, the maker movement, guerilla art, oppression of the “little guy,” even cartoons! These bloggers were practically meme-baited into assuming the worst, and they raised a furor before they had put their finger exactly on what it was about the story that they feared and opposed. More than a week later, they’re still searching for that elusive argument.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Todd Vanderlin