Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Boston, Lite Brites, and the risk of being TOO afraid

Remember Lite Brite, that toy for little kids where they plug colored plastic pegs into a grid of holes and make faces and houses and...terrorist bombs? Welcome to the new normal, post 9/11, where risk is in the eye of the beholder and a lot of people are having trouble seeing straight. And a lot of us are suffering as a result.

Boston suffered in all sorts of ways recently as a result of this impaired vision, as roads, subways, and major facilities were shut down because of a possible terrorist threat that turned out to be innocuous. The response was triggered by vigilance, yes. With hindsight, that vigilance was excessive, and costly. But it can teach us something.

Let’s start with the highway maintenance guy who noticed a ‘suspicious device’ hanging under a highway overpass. Like any cautious citizen these days, he assumed that something with lights and wires in a public place might be a bomb. He called it in and the system went immediately from ‘It’s a normal day’, directly to ‘The Sky is Falling!’. First lesson. How about an intermediate step, like ‘Let’s check this out before we overreact.’

Parts of Boston’s subway system were shut down. Local TV news leapt into alarmist live coverage. Reports of similar devices started coming in from other locations. By early afternoon, major roadways were shut down. The Coast Guard blocked off access to the Charles River. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI were called in, and the emergency response systems in Boston were in high gear. The devices were removed by heavily armored law enforcement explosives experts. Some were taken to a range and blown up. Some were neutralized with high pressure water cannons.

That’s a pretty frightened response to a bunch of Lite Brite boxes depicting a cartoon character brandishing his middle finger that had been hanging around for the last couple weeks as part of a marketing campaign for a TV cartoon program. Oh, and they’d been hanging around in several other cities too, provoking absolutely no concern. But these days it just takes one Chicken Little and we all turn into Henny Penny and Turkey Lurky and head for the nearest cave. The result of which, in this case, was a really big mess that badly inconvenienced tens of thousands of people, endangered some, cost the economy a lot of money, and took a healthy bite out of the public safety budgets of the city, state, and federal governments.

Fumed Boston Mayor Tom Menino, “It is outrageous, in a post 9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme." State Attorney General Martha Coakley promises an investigation into “…the roots of how this happened to cause panic in this city.”

If that investigation is thorough it needs to look at how the government handled things. Maybe the official response had just a little to do with that panic, don’t you think? In these jittery post-9/11 days, governments have the responsibility to be careful, absolutely. But don’t they also have to be careful about how quickly they go to red alert? That highway worker, or his bosses, or somebody up the decision-making ladder, should have taken a closer look at these devices before jumping to worst-case assumptions and contributing mightily to the mess Boston suffered.

Our senior officials, from police chiefs and Mayors up to the Secretary of Homeland Security and the President, have to deliver responsible vigilance, or they play right into the terrorist’s hands. Jennifer Mason, a 26 year-old local resident, had it about right when she told one news organization, "It's almost too easy to be a terrorist these days. You stick a box on a corner and you can shut down a city."

The marketing people who put this stuff up deserve their share of the blame too. Hanging boxes full of lights and wires in public places these days is pretty dumb. Terrorism is real. We are in a new normal. The people trying to create a little buzz for their product have to be careful that they don’t create a lot more than that. (Of course even as they publicly apologize and agree to compensate the city for its costs, the people behind this are probably chuckling over the great exposure they and their program are getting. Except for the head of the Cartoon Network, which was behind the ad campaign, who ultimately resigned after paying the city $2 million for its expenses.)

But the Boston scare should remind us of what happened in the Chicken Little fable. The animals were so jumpy that they readily followed Chicken Little into that cave for protection. Where Foxy Loxy was waiting, to turn them into lunch. Vigilance is fine. But hyper-vigilance can be dangerous. Just ask all the people who suffered in Boston last week. Shame on us, and our officials, if we let our worries get out of hand, and in a well-intended effort to make things better, we make them worse.