Dateline: 1/31/2006, Location: Anywhere Terrorists Have Access to Television.
Terrorists enjoyed a great laugh on Wednesday as several major cities panicked over an apparent possible attack from some wanna be Lite-Brite marketing creations. Most will recall from childhood the fun Lite-Brite toy allowing you to put colored plastic pegs in holes and these would light up from the background light. You can make your own online Lite-Brite creation at Hasbro at their Lite-Brite tool.)
Well, apparently the Cartoon Network was promoting a TV show called "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and decided to do some viral marketing involving some blinking electronics signs they'd put on various bridges and other spots in several United States cities. Even though some of these were in place for weeks, one day apparently someone noticed one and made the call, "possible terrorist device on bridge." All manner of mayhem then occurred, for which a basic web search can find you a variety of stories.
Let's summarize some of the more ridiculous aspects of this whole situation.
- These devices blink. They call attention to themselves. They weren't hiding.
- These devices had a circuit board, a large blinking display and a small battery pack. The most cursory look at the thing would show... what? No place to hide even the smallest amount of explosives. (Yes, I'm sure experts could argue this point.)
- These things were apparently in place for one to several weeks. Basically unnoticed. For devices intended to get attention, they sure didn't work very well. (That is, of course, until they were interpreted as being bombs or something.)
Let's summarize why the advertising/marketing people were foolish.
- As utterly odd and improbable these things would be interpreted as threats might be, such a consideration is within the realm of "foreseeable." I suppose when your head is all the way up your butt though, you can't really think clearly about implications of what you're doing. They were thinking, "wow, we're doing some seriously out of the box marketing thinking. We're like, viral. You know... if you're not doing viral, I mean, like your not modern marketing, you know?"
- The character on the device looks like it's holding up a middle finger. At risk of seeming puritanical about such things; this is really just inappropriate to be dumping all over public places. Yeah, I know. They're just so cool and it's just like... free speech dude.
- Bottom line: The myopia of the marketing folks was such that they didn't see any implications of their little effort beyond their own "coolness" and just Being Viral in their marketing.
So the effect of all this?
- The two people arrested for placing the devices, Peter Berdovsky, 27, of and Sean Stevens, 28, are probably now considered folk heroes. They were charged with one count of placing a hoax device and one count of disorderly conduct. (Alice's Restaurant and the Group W Bench come to mind.)
- Terrorists now clearly know that with minimal effort, they can cause amazingly disruptive events without needing any explosives or biochemical weapons of any sort. A few boxes with some wires sticking out will be enough to close down whole cities' transportation systems. Our societal paranoia will take care of the rest. (I'm aware of the fact that "you're not paranoid if it's true," but... come on now. Really.)
Regarding Law Enforcement and public behavior...
- No question. These folks are overburdened. The last thing they need to be spending their time on is stupid hoaxes. Though this wasn't a hoax; just a ill-conceived marketing plan, a lot of unnecessary effort was expended that would have been better put towards other efforts.
- Any time an emergency services worker has to go out into the field and deal with just about anything at all, there's some risk. Just getting up on ladders or whatever it took to retrieve these things entailed some risk to them. So as over the top officials' reactions might be, the guys in the street that have to deal with this were put at some degree of increased risk - however small - due to some morons' idea of a cute marketing campaign.
- We're already screwed when it comes to this sort of thing. That is, if intelligence agencies don't catch terrorist plots early, it's highly unlikely that local eyes are going to. Most emergency systems are basically not equipped to really deal with this stuff. New equipment and training notwithstanding, as a society, we're just not going to be able to defend that well against small efforts to cause problems. Our main defense is to do the best we can, but at the same time not let anything interrupt our day-to-day way of life. We ARE VERY LIKELY going to take more hits. They'll hurt. Some maybe terribly, horrifically. And we'll painfully deal with such things. In the meantime, there's little benefit to walking around paranoid all the time. It's not likely to help. It is likely to hurt.
Bottom Line? Really stupid situation. All the way around.