The Boston LED Party

AP.mooninite.image.jpgLately, 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

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5 Responses

  1. KipEsquire says:

    “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.”

    So now we punish people because what they did “feels wrong” rather than because their conduct met the specific elements of a specific provision of a specific penal code?

    And you think we’re the ones who “can’t put their finger on the problem”?

  2. Certainly, the initial investigation was reasonable. But the police didn’t incorporate new information about the harmlessness of the Mooninites as it came in, and high public officials continued to make obviously false statements about the devices and their makers (particularly after Turner came forward and took responsibility). Instead, with the help of a panic-monging media, they shut down Boston. You can’t do that. That’s the-terrorists-have-won stupid. That means all that the bad have to do is leave random junk lying about here and there and the Americans will work themselves into a state of crazed fear.

  3. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    I’m willing to bet a Law & Order writer is already creating an episode in which the stunt causes a death, and Jack McCoy goes after the network executives after pleading out the two performance artists.

  4. Paul Ohm says:


    The Turner mea culpa doesn’t do it for me. Even if they pay for the investigation and promise never to do it again, it seems like a slap on the wrist and a tiny price to pay for week-long wall-to-all coverage.

    I take your point about what happened after the police figured out that the devices were harmless. Perhaps the police should have worked harder to calm things down once they knew what they were dealing with. If the “high officials” switched from public safety to fear mongering at some point, shame on them. But I’m also willing to believe that the flow of information up and down is imperfect in cases like these.

  5. Michael says:

    “Why is it so hard to believe that a circuit board with batteries, wires, and a few other components might look like a bomb to a reasonable bomb expert?”

    Umm..cause theres no freakin explosive material. Nor is there any unidentifiable mass on the sign (I refuse to use the word “device”) that could be mistaken as explosive material.

    Are a circuit board, batteries, and wires really the criteria for labeling something as a bomb? Did a bomb expert actually inspect one of these signs to determine it was an explosive? If it was actually determined an explosive, where are these “experts” being trained? If it was determined NOT an explosive, why did public officials continue to inflate public panic?