Another Boston Terrorism Overreaction

Are these people trying to be stupid?

Sofia Loginova, 17, a Quincy High senior, said she didn’t hire anyone to hang four backpacks emblazoned with her Web site’s name,, and filled with newspapers and some dollar bills, from tree limbs and on a fence near the school. The unexplained backpacks sparked a panic.

The State Police Bomb Squad brought in a mechanical robot and a bomb-sniffing dog to investigate, immediately bringing to mind the Cartoon Network marketing ploy that shut down parts of Boston for hours earlier this year.

Terrorism used to be hard. Now all you have to is hang backpacks from trees near schools.

Refuse to be terrorized, people!

Posted on April 17, 2007 at 7:23 AM82 Comments


Clive Robinson April 17, 2007 7:27 AM

Do you think somebody miss read B4Class as C4Blast and thought “Oh My God”

aop April 17, 2007 7:39 AM


Though I agree to an extent, it seems logical that our species (and most others) would react with excess caution to unusual situations.

Rational thought is something very new in our evolution – thousands and thousands of years of survival based on fear and impulse has been effective.

Maybe this is a transitional phase?

Bruce Schneier April 17, 2007 7:45 AM

“Maybe this is a transitional phase?”

I’m not sure if you mean “transitional phase” as a species or as a culture, but I definitely think we’re in a temporary phase in history. Ten, fifteen years from now — we’ll look back at this time and shake our heads in amazement.

Paul Bunyan April 17, 2007 7:49 AM

I guess the people of Boston fear terrorist attacks on their forests. One can only guess at the loss of human life when a tree is blown up .

Hadi Hariri April 17, 2007 8:05 AM

We do refuse to be terrorized as I’m sure millions of people do. But it’s not us that’s the problem.

It’s not beneficial to those in power for us to not be terrorized. How would they justify their actions?

Nathan April 17, 2007 8:08 AM

I fail to see the over-reaction part. Would you also be shaking your fists at them for inaction if the backpacks were filled with explosives (think flechettes) set to detonate upon school dismissal?

Where do you think the line needs to be drawn? Perhaps we could request that terrorists simply ensure their devices look like explosives that way there wouldn’t be any confusion.

You can’t pick and choose security like you seem to want to do after the investigation reveals the threat was benign. I’ll admit the ATHF fiasco was pathetic at best but I applaud them for taking this one seriously.

Seth Gordon April 17, 2007 8:19 AM

At last report, prosecutors have not reached any kind of plea agreement with the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Two, which means that the folks who put up the signs that started this mishegas are likely to go on trial.

I’m sure their defense attorneys are itching to prove police overreach by introducing the silly terrorist backpack case, the silly terrorist traffic-counter case, and whatever other silly terrorist cases show up in the next few months.

DBH April 17, 2007 8:23 AM

Well, I admit when I first read this, I thought (and maybe that’s the times) that you did need to be careful here… But then reality struck, terrorism is not about blowing up some poor schmuck who touches the wrong backpack, its about really doing some serious maiming and killing, and hanging the explosives on a tree is not going to do it. Of course, that’s a pretty sophisticated thought process for the school prinicipal who will be skewered if he’s wrong (assuming he lives…)

Sean Barrett April 17, 2007 8:25 AM

Nathan’s logic might make sense if terrorists placing random “suspicious” objects in public places was a known attack vector. But it’s not, and you have to balance the good with the bad of assuming it to be so. (Naturally the CYA issue may figure prominently, even if a given vector has never been used before.)

On the other hand, the idea that we’re in transition here seems plausible to me. Food/medicine tamper-resistence wasn’t just a phase and we got over it. It was always exploitable previously, but nobody’d ever done it; and once it was exploited, it had to be blocked to prevent copycats, if nothing else. Maybe after thirty years they could just casually stop doing it without calling attention to it, except for CYA lawsuit protection.

Similarly, Halloween now is just not the Halloween from twenty years ago, or forty.

This is all ‘prevent the attacks that have happened before’, and this may be more applicable since copycatting seems fairly common in these non-terrorist scenarios.

On the other hand you can argue that Boston is wisely saying “we have listened to security researchers and realized we don’t know what form the next attack is going to take, therefore we are going to treat anything unfamiliar as a potential terrorist threat.” Even if that’s not the intended lesson.

Matt from CT April 17, 2007 8:25 AM


Could be the opposite as well —

MA State Police are now not going to back down from very cautious policies if for no other reason then to demonstrate this is Standard Operating Procedure and not an isolated over-reaction.

“Your honor, we treated the Aqua Force incident we treated all other similiar incidents.”

Doesn’t seem like much of an overreaction frankly — school went on normally and student’s simply weren’t allowed to mill around outside until a robot went and verified they weren’t dangerous.

Erik N April 17, 2007 8:26 AM

Maybe it was a tree that tipped off the police?


Amazed? which way? All the things we thought were bombs, or all the things we didn’t?

Chip April 17, 2007 8:29 AM

As Nathan said: “Where do you draw the line?”

I agree that these incidents should be investigated “just to be safe”. However, I disagree that — once it is determined that no threat was involved (or intended) — the authorities pursue aggressive prosecution when the individuals involved clearly did not intend wrongdoing.

I mean, come on … if I decide that the billboard on the Interstate is a “suspicious package”, then should the company on the billboard be arrested and prosecuted? The ad agency? The billboard owner?

Again, important to investigate possible threats – wrong to prosecute when there’s no foul play.

Matt from CT April 17, 2007 8:35 AM

To add to the comments about transition,

The transition may simply be away from this being done by the bomb squad or newsworthy.

Over the next 20 years, we’ll see increasing use of robots and robot like devices by “non specialist” branches of public safety.

Don’t know what it is, don’t have to look in it myself. Have the ‘bot brought from the local station to take a look. Pays for itself in a single Worker’s Comp claim if something did go boom. If it looks suspicious after the local robot opens it, then the bomb squad gets called.

Robots in the form of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles should play a greater role — they can replace manned airplanes watching for forest fires, and a fleet of UAVs should be cheaper to deploy as a “swarm” for search & rescue missions. I’m thinking out to see, but they should be able to swarm a forested area just as well.

Shomi Yorpapers April 17, 2007 8:36 AM

From your linked essay:

“The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.”

The USA has been shifting to a locked-down society and teaching their children that spurious security measures are part of nature. They are becoming like many nations they fought against not so long ago.

Nathan April 17, 2007 8:41 AM

Chip, I agree with exactly what you’re saying and again, the ATHF incident was an exercise in stupidity but in today’s world, what fool would knowningly hang backpacks from trees or a fence post around a school? I think people should be responsible for not exercising good judgement forcing a waste of time and resources to investigate.

Should ATHF viral marketing be prosecuted; no. Should this incident? Perhaps.

To be honest, wouldn’t some of you think it a bit odd for backpacks to be hanging from trees or a fence post around a school or would you just assume “Oh, they’re stuffed with dollar bills and newspaper, no need to worry”.

For those of us with children, I think it speaks for itself that we fully support erring on the side of caution with anything that may affect children.

Shlomo from Israel April 17, 2007 8:41 AM


Usually I don’t disagree with you, but this time I’m going to.

I live in Israel and there are times when suspicious packages are found around our towns and cities. The reaction described in Boston is exactly what happens here.

I once heard someone say they thought it was on over reaction until one day when the bag was shot with a shotgun, and the bag went BOOM.

Mark J. April 17, 2007 9:11 AM

This may not be a common terrorist M.O., but it’s becoming a common advertising ploy. Think how much publicity is getting now. I bet their site stats went ballistic. We may start seeing more of these incidents simply because of the publicity they generate. It’ll be interesting to see how the outcome of the Cartoon Network trial affects future instances. If those two guys get off scot-free, there could be an epidemic of such ploys.

Bob April 17, 2007 9:26 AM

It’s pretty easy to use hindsight to make fun of various law enforcement agencies for over-reacting.

However many people are wondering whether, if not claiming that, the campus police at Virginia Tech under-reacted to the first shooting incident yesterday (April 16, 2007), thereby allowing the carnage of the second incident to be worse than it otherwise might have been.

I’ll note that Bruce didn’t bring up Virginia Tech incident, perhaps because it doesn’t fit nicely within his oft-flogged U.S. law-enforcement over-reacts theme.

Since perfect knowledge isn’t possible, there’s no way to calibrate your reaction perfectly. Do you react in a way that will likely lead to over-reactions or under-reactions? Do you choose to minimize type 1 errors or type 2 errors (for those with a statistical background)?

With hindsight it’s so damn easy to be snide, huh?

Fred April 17, 2007 9:39 AM


I have the highest respect for Bruce, but you’re right, I would like to hear his take on VT and how it fits his usual model.

nobody April 17, 2007 9:40 AM


Virginia Tech toll: about 30 I think.

11/9 toll: ~3000 I think.

road toll: 40,000 per year!!

I we care about saving lives then we would be doing very different things.

But we don’t care about lives. We care about news and drama. We buy at the news stand. We talk about it over beer. We worry about it when watch the news.

If you think a death via a car crash is somehow less volient, I suggest that you pop into a AE ward, or the reablitation ward and talk to the folks that survive. Even better ask Mom and Dad how they feel about there 12year old girl that was “taken to early”.

The loss is no less in these cases.

But we so love our drama.

Carlo Graziani April 17, 2007 9:46 AM

I’m of the same opinion as I was at the time of the last episode of BPD bomb-scare stupidity. They don’t care how stupid they look because this is really about spending Federal anti-terror grant money, which they need to do in order not to lose some or all of that money next fiscal year.

Some City official will write a document describing the expenditures associated with the anti-terror activities of the bomb squad, and will not feel it necessary to attach press clippings illustrating how goofy those activities really were. That document will be part of the basis for renewal of the grant.

Stephan Samuel April 17, 2007 9:46 AM


Terrorism isn’t about doing serious maiming or killing. It’s about causing terror. Most of the “victims of terrorism” don’t feel it’s effect: they’re dead. The point of terrorism is to say to people something like, “look how horrible we’ll make your life if you don’t do what we want.” Those of us who didn’t die and saw the coverage on CNN are the real victims. They’ve already made us believe that we can get blown up any time by anything in a backpack with a few blinking LEDs. The USA has curtailed the freedom of Americans out of fear.

We’ve conveniently assisted all the recent terrorists from McVeigh to Osama bin Laden by being frightened. As Bruce said, refuse to be terrorized. Make peace with your life and walk without fear.

My suggestion: go back 40 years. Make pocketknives legal on airplanes, not to mention liquid and shoes. Let people walk onto public transportation without scrutiny or surveillance. Leave Arabia and for distraction start a cold war with someone who wants to play; we’re ripe for a vicious trade war with Europe. We’re likely to find that terrorism will just go away.

Andy April 17, 2007 9:50 AM

“Hey, Ahmed, let’s terrorise the US again”
“Why, do you have more pilots?”
“No. But I guess we could go out and leave rucksacks lying around”

Ian Mason April 17, 2007 9:58 AM

@Nathan “Would you also be shaking your fists at them for inaction…”

Every time one of these over-reactions to an ‘odd’ package/item gets reported here or elsewhere there’s always someone who makes that remark. You miss the point, which is that people are over-reacting to things that have a very, very low probability of being bombs by their conspicuity.

Bombs are not placed in odd/suspicious/obvious places. Bombers want the things to explode undetected. So they conceal them. The bombs I recall from past terror campaigns (some of which I have been uncomfortably close to) have been concealed in cars, vans, litter bins, inside walls (plastered over), in postal packages and in luggage/bags placed in inconspicious places.

“To be honest, wouldn’t some of you think it a bit odd for backpacks to be hanging from trees or a fence post around a school”

No, I’d think “That bag contains some nerd’s books and some jocks are now unjustifiably pleased with themselves.”


Israel is the victim of an known, widespread, ongoing terrorist bombing campaign and has been for years. America isn’t and hasn’t. In American border towns sane people don’t carry firearms everywhere they go*, in Israeli border towns sane people do. The two aren’t comparable and don’t call for identical tactics.

Stephan Samuel April 17, 2007 10:03 AM

@Bob (and Fred),

If 20 million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea.

Listening to people on the VT campus blame the police for not preventing the second shooting is like asking a rape victim to counsel marriage disorders. Those people are scared and angry. Based on all evidence presented so far, there is no reasonable way the VT campus police should have expected the second incidence to occur based on the first one. The VT campus police prevented a third, larger and more violent shooting from occurring the same day. If you don’t believe that, you’re the worst victim of your faulty 20/20 hindsight argument.

The sad truth is that people will get killed by criminals. You or I could be next. We have no way of reasonably predicting crime in most cases and this was one of them. Even if we could predict every crime, a huge percentage of them would be unstoppable. That’s the trade-off we make: freedom is not free.

On a side note, it’s common knowledge that Bruce often schedules his blogs in advance. Just because he hasn’t blogged yet, that doesn’t mean he won’t. It also doesn’t mean that there’s a legitimate security-interest topic in the tragedy at VT. This is a security blog, not a news blog.

Roxanne April 17, 2007 10:04 AM

The problem is that in 1996, Eric Robert Rudolph set off a bomb at the Atlanta Olympic games by walking in with a backpack, setting it down, and walking away. He wasn’t Arab, it wasn’t the Middle East; he was blond, blue-eyed, and from Georgia. Not the one in Asia, either; he was close to home.

Timothy McVeigh was likewise blond, blue-eyed, and a homegrown American. He blew up a Federal building with nothing more than ordinary farming supplies.

Four backpacks could be dangerous. I’m thinking that one would be more likely, but hey.

This morning, they’re giving Virginia Tech all sorts of grief for not shutting down the campus after the first shooting yesterday. I’m with the cops: there was no reason to shut down the whole school until the second set of shooting started. They acted appropriately. And yet someone’s going to be in trouble because they didn’t over-react.

You can’t win.

Mike Sherwood April 17, 2007 10:07 AM

Mark J. has it exactly right. It would cost tens of millions of dollars to get the kind of advertising exposure that one of these stunts gets. In the marketing world, there is no such thing as bad press. As long as someone is talking about your product, that’s a free plug.

Working the system results in better advertising than anyone could hope to buy on a reasonable budget. Even if the company has to pay for all of the resources utilized in the stunt, that’s a fraction of what it would cost for comparable coverage. That’s the worst exposure they face, and that’s only for the companies with the resources to pay. Small companies that are struggling have nothing to lose. These kinds of stunts will become increasingly common. The good news is that most of these will be centered around places like Boston who have a reputation for making a media circus out of it.

Lars April 17, 2007 10:14 AM

No need to terrorize the US any further. You have been well trained over there and are able to terrorize yourself quite good. Pity is; it seems to be virulent and is getting to other societies as well.

What need for a terrorist to go over there, risk live and wealth to arouse fear if any left luggage does it well.

Besides, what should be the thing that has changed since 9/11? There have been bombings at any time, some by foreigners, but most by locals. It’s only, that one singular attack had somewhat more effect (one can argue about effect) and now the whole country is in uproar.

If it wouldn’t result in whole governments running amok, it would be funny to watch. But there are people being hurt and killed nowadays because of this. And that’s where the fun stops.

Thus, my 2c: The worlds strongest state has to realize again, that it is indeed increadibly powerful and readjust its reception of the severity of some threats and events.

Ed T. April 17, 2007 10:20 AM

@Stephan Samuel – you have it 100% right. Terrorism isn’t about killing, or maiming, or destroying property: it is about terrorising. Think of the victory the bad guys gained last year, when we banned liquids on airplanes, and the victory they get every time people can’t stand in line to go to the bathroom.


Lars April 17, 2007 10:23 AM

No need to terrorize the US any further. You have been well trained over there and are able to terrorize yourself quite good. Pity is; it seems to be virulent and is getting to other societies as well.

What need for a terrorist to go over there, risk live and wealth to arouse fear if any left luggage does it well.

Besides, what should be the thing that has changed since 9/11? There have been bombings at any time, some by foreigners, but most by locals. It’s only, that one singular attack had somewhat more effect (one can argue about effect) and now the whole country is in uproar.

If it wouldn’t result in whole governments running amok, it would be funny to watch. But there are people being hurt and killed nowadays because of this. And that’s where the fun stops.

Thus, my 2c: The worlds strongest state has to realize again, that it is indeed increadibly powerful and readjust its reception of the severity of some threats and events.

Jamie Flournoy April 17, 2007 10:25 AM

“what fool would knowningly hang backpacks from trees or a fence post around a school?”

Oh, oh, I know this one… is it: students?

Politicians and police and other people in a cover-your-ass / increase-my-importance role are naturally saying that the rational thing to do when you see something is to assume that it’s the worst possible thing, regardless of probability or cost. Got ants in your house? Possibly trained by terrorists to bring anthrax into your house undetected. Rock at the side of the road? Possibly has an IED attached. Garbage bag dumped in the woods? Possibly has a suitcase nuke hidden inside. Backpack at a school? Possibly is a bomb.

The correct answer to “shouldn’t we be doing absolutely everything possible to prevent harm to ourselves and our children” is obviously “no”.

Alan Porter April 17, 2007 10:34 AM


There’s a huge difference between:
– Over-reacting to a backpack that MIGHT be a threat.
– Under-reacting to a shooting incident that is a PROVEN threat.

guvn't April 17, 2007 10:46 AM

@Roxanne, there you go using logic to argue the wrong side.

historical evidence showing people use backpacks left in public places as an attack vector is no reason to believe that they would do so again, is it?

and of course no one would target a low-profile site like a school instead of the Olympics, events such as Columbine, Va Tech, the Texas Tower, the Amish schoolhouse, the Red Lake massacre etc. not withstanding.

Roxanne, you hit the nail on the head, “You can’t win” if you’re in a position of responsibility, irresponsible criticism will not be swayed by facts.

Josh O April 17, 2007 10:54 AM

Perhaps things aren’t really as bad as they seem. Maybe everyday hundreds of school principals see unattended bags and don’t over-react. It’s just that we hear about the few who do, and it seems like we’re teeming with idiots, when in reality, the media is simply over-reporting the stupidity. Except for the mooninites thing.

Josh O April 17, 2007 11:00 AM

For those pointing out that you can’t win (as shown in the VA Tech story) and that it’s better to over-react than under-react: That’s merely a symptom of a larger problem. The blame everyone else philosophy. That is indeed what causes the over-reaction. The perpetrator is where the blame should lie. Everything is a continuum. The ultimate over-reaction is to lock all of us up in cells for our own safety. But even the most zealous “over-reaction” supporters don’t support that, so obviously at some point, we must act rationally.

Madman April 17, 2007 11:16 AM

The “problem” with the “overreaction” is that Boston simply does not get bombs going off very often, nor does anyplace else in the US.

Note that when a real attack occurs, such as the sad story at Virginia Tech, the response is slow, confused and people are being killed.

We seem to see big government action protecting us from carrying our bottled water through security at the airports, but stopping a real attack is nearly impossible.

Fenris Fox April 17, 2007 11:32 AM

As I said in my blog (linked in my post username):

“…I hereby conclude that the City of Boston, Massachusetts has a terminal case of malignant paranoia.”

@Clive Robinson:

‘Do you think somebody miss read B4Class as C4Blast and thought “Oh My God”‘

LOL! It wouldn’t surprise me…

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some people (not most, by any means – don’t get me wrong) would misread something like that on purpose – because they want to be “heroes.”

More like glory-hounds… =:o\

Fred April 17, 2007 11:53 AM


You misunderstood my post. I’m not calling Bruce to the carpet. I’m asking him, “What steps should have been taken to prevent VT”. If the answer is “It was unpreventable”, then that’s the answer. But I’m quite certain Bruce has ever taken the stance that mass murder/terrorism can not be prevented using reasonable measures. I want to know what reasonable measures he would suggest.

Ale April 17, 2007 12:07 PM


Maybe Bruce is waiting to have more info. I guess that’s what I would do; opinions without info tend to be pretty bad opinions.

mdf April 17, 2007 12:35 PM

Bruce is dead on target, as usual. Responding to “Roxanne”, above:

“You can’t win.”

What are you babbling about? They do win. All the time. No matter what. When the cops over-react, it’s all for your protection — even if none was provided, even if the exercise put you at more risk otherwise. And when they under-react, they say “unpreventable, so sad”.

Basically, no matter what the cops do, they are never blamed for their lapses in judgment. No responsibility whatsoever.

To that extent, when someone shoots two people at 07:30 and that same person remains still armed and at loose, and this occurs at a school, what the hell else do the cops need to know in order to shut the the place down? How many of these school shootings have we had now? Just how many more have to occur before the police form the beginning of a clue?

Joshua April 17, 2007 1:22 PM

As a Bostonian, I feel honour-bound to point out that it’s only the freakin’ authorities who get their panties in a twist over these things. The rest of us are alternately having a laugh at the stupidity and shaking our heads at the embarassment.

Tom April 17, 2007 1:27 PM

Boston/State Police/Officials != people of Boston.

I don’t say all Americans when I mean George Bush and its administration

derf April 17, 2007 1:29 PM

One problem with VT is that Geraldo and the rest of the news loonies have to fill 24 hours a day with witty, exciting, viewer retaining, revenue generating fluff. Nancy Grace and her ilk get more mileage from nearly incoherant accusations of incompetence than by looking at the picture with a rational, common sense view.

In a similiar manner, the Boston police get to play CYA and demand more tax dollars for their “terrorism” budget by using the bomb squad instead of just sending an experienced cop to take a closer look.

Imagine if the entire US airspace were cleared like on 9/11 whenever there was an airport security incident. How long would US taxpayers and travellers stand for that? There is a limit to how far Americans will allow themselves to be pushed by the nanny state, but apparently we haven’t yet reached it.

Pat Cahalan April 17, 2007 1:50 PM

@ mdf

when someone shoots two people at 7:30 and that same person
remains still armed and at loose, what the hell else do the cops need to know
in order to shut the place down?

Firearm deaths in the US are pretty common, school shootings are extremely rare (source):

Murder on college/universities is infintesimal – I scrolled through the FBI report and only saw two homicides in 2005, but I wasn’t being exhaustive (source):

Virginia Tech has an enrollment of over 22,000 students (source):

“Shutting down” a major university is essentially impossible, this is not like a high school with a limited number of buildings and a facility-wide PA system.

I work at a university and our enrollment is about a quarter of VTech, and I can’t imagine it would be possible to “shut down” this school in any reasonable amount of time.

Moreover, mass shooting events are almost exclusively singularities -> someone arms themselves and goes on a rampage which ends when the shooter is apprehended or killed. The likelihood of someone killing a few people as a “prelude” to a shooting spree is vanishingly small.

Combine these realities together.

An extremely unlikely event (murder) occurs in a very large setting (equivalent to the population of a town). In response, then, the campus police ought to take extreme measures (shut the place down), which (due to the size of the facilities) are extremely unlikely to have much efficacy in evacuating the population in any reasonable time (meaning there’s still going to be groups of students to shoot at, in fact possibly areas of greater congregation where hundreds instead of dozens of students are in one place), all in the name of attempting to prevent yet another vanishingly-small-probability event (a shooting spree)?

Stephan Samuel April 17, 2007 2:30 PM

I agree with Pat Cahalan. Further to his point: how the heck do you “evacuate” a campus to defend against an unknown enemy who may or may not commit an unknown crime?

At 9-whatever in the morning, before the second shooting, the police did not know who shot, nor where he or she was. They also had no indication that the unknown perpetrator was going to go postal on a classroom full of kids.

Even in hindsight, what’s your move at that point? Evacuate Norris Hall? How do we know it wasn’t the first full classroom he came upon, or the closest when he snapped? Should we send a SWAT team to every building within 50 miles every time a person gets shot? (Before anyone thinks to suggest we should, I assure you there are at least 20 good reasons why that is ineffective.)

Where do you take the kids? Outside the hall where he could shoot them as they scurry in random directions? Kids (including the grown-up ones who are 23 now) play enough video games to know how to sneak up on a bunch of people if they’re the one shooting, but lack the experience to make orderly decisions when under fire. Having the kids outside the building and the five nearest it (because you can’t just evacuate one building unless you have the benefit of hindsight) would have increased the density of targets by a large factor.

Evacuations are for known threats that cause known damage and travel at slow speeds, like floods and hurricanes.

Alan April 17, 2007 2:41 PM

The media is looking for another sensational story. It’s not enough that 32 people were murdered in a shooting spree of historic proportions. They want a story about a university president being brought down.

It was heart-warming to see several students, being interviewed on CNN last night, refusing to take the bait from the reporters on that. They did not want to blame the university administration. They came across far more mature than the reporters.

Yes, let’s learn everything we can and improve what we can. But let’s not forget who was pulling the trigger.

mdf April 17, 2007 3:06 PM

You do not need to directly notify 22,000 people to shut it down. How many property managers are there? I can think of any number of means to carry it out though. For example, the “facility wide PA system” in this case could be the fire alarms. And of course, one works outward from the initial incident. The initial event occurred prior to heavy building use, making any notification/closure all the easier to do. Ditto for notification of the risk to others. Options options options. None apparently taken.

And really, that the “extremely unlikely event” occurred, not once, but twice, is what suggests the probability models you’ve constructed are not operative: what is P(spree to be|two dead students)? It’s certainly not going to be P(spree) or P(two dead students) or what other simple prior statistics will say.

I’d say it is fairly high these days (over .1), given the reasonable guess the first killings were by a student. That is:

P(spree_to_be|dead_students,student_murderer_still_on_the_loose) is within the bounds of the probable

This is because, rational or not, the murderer will be thinking his life has been forfeited. Decision: rot in jail forever, or use what you have and go out in Grand Theft Auto “style”.

(And I believe it could be argued the first events were in fact a spree on their own, not just mere murders. If true, what is P(another_spree|first_spree,perpetrator_still_at_large)?)

So, putting all this together, do you sit around with these reasonable extrapolations waiting for a hammer to fall, or do you actively do the job you are supposed to be doing, protecting people and property?

Now let’s contrast this to the event Bruce points us to. A backpack in a tree with an URL on it. Near a school. P(bomb|given_all_that) still seems to be remarkably low, even if further qualified by the reasonable guess that the person who put it there was a student. If anything, that guess should lower the probability: it is more likely the student would just take such a bomb right into the school.

Alan Moe April 17, 2007 3:22 PM

@ Mark J.

Two words: Joe Job.

If you start punishing companies because their logo was used in what became interpreted as a hoax (thereby giving the company hype), hoaxes will still be perpetrated by those who want to see companies punished.

“Send a message” punishments are generally a bad idea.

On the other hand, if the principal had just gone alone to investigate the backpacks, no hype nor bomb-squad costs would have been incurred and no one would have to be punished.

We don’t need more punishments, we need less fear.

bzelbob April 17, 2007 3:43 PM

Everything is now terrorism?

That suspicious car on the side of the road. The homeless guy wandering around at night who happens to have a camera. Anything and everything that’s “out of the ordinary” might just have some link to some terrorist plot.

But the problem is that weird, unusual stuff happens every single day everywhere in the world! What are we training ourselves to do; react to anything and everything like frightened children jumping at shadows in the dark? From all appearances this is exactly what is happening.

We need to stop being so childish, demand that our elected officials and others stop being childish and grow up and most of all (to quote Bruce):


Mark J. April 17, 2007 3:54 PM

@Alan Moe

I wasn’t suggesting that we need more punishment. I just meant that the outcome of the Cartoon Network trial will set the precedent. If they do nothing to those two guys, it will be open season for similar stunts. If they throw the book at those two, others may not be so quit to try similar stunts. I’m not passing judgment either way, I’m just stating a fact.

Pat Cahalan April 17, 2007 4:55 PM

@ mdf

How many property managers are there?

I don’t know anything about VTech’s campus, but where I work there (again, with 1/4 the number of enrolled students) there are 124 buildings. Assuming there is a canonical contact for each building (which, in fact, there aren’t), that would be 124 people. Getting 124 people to all move in one direction in two hours is a huge logistical problem. What if they’re in a meeting? What if they’re not reading email? Do you have executive authority to compel them to evacuate all of their buildings?

For example, the “facility wide PA system” in this case could be the fire alarms.

Wow, would this be a bad idea. One fire alarm goes off, people generally consider it a drill, but they’ll get up and go outside like they’re supposed to. Assuming VTech is 4 times as big as this campus, that’s 496 buildings depopulating all at once. Now you’ve got 20,000 people, all disconnected from their normal forms of communication, all looking around wondering what’s going on. Aside from the panic factor, you now have (also, again) moved the target cluster from 20-30 people in a single room to clumps of hundreds of people standing around outside.

Of course, everyone would have to know that this was the procedure in the event of a shooting, so the perp would also know this, and that a couple of molotov cocktails and an assault rifle could really give him a spectacular body count.

P(spree_to_be|dead_students,student_murderer_still_on_the_loose) is within the bounds of the probable

I’ll have to do some research to prove you wrong here, but I can only find a half-dozen shooting rampages on college campuses since Mr. Whitman climbed the tower in 1966 (I’m not counting pre/K-12 school shootings or international sprees). I don’t have the time to exhaustively check the murder rate on college campuses in the last 41 years, but looking at 2002 and 2005, it looks like 10 per year is a reasonable guess.

You’re therefore talking about evacuating an entire campus 410 times over the last 41 years in an attempt to mitigate the half-dozen shooting rampages that have occured in the same time period (again, I’d argue that in the event of a real shooting spree risk, you’d actually be making the threat a whole lot worse).

How is this even close to a reasonable idea?

Shachar Shemesh April 17, 2007 11:51 PM

I have to say that I agree both with Shlomo and with Ian disagreeing with Shlomo.

As an Israeli, puffed bags lying around are a real and actual bomb threat, despite the fact that this terrorism MO was all but abandoned quite some time ago. Up until three or four years ago, a bomb would only go off if there was an actual person attached to it. For the past three or four years the MO shifted to shooting actual projectiles.

The thing to keep in mind regarding Israel is that the bag MO was abandoned because the public developed the awareness to unidentified bags, and the MO became ineffective. It is highly questionable whether, should that awareness go away because “it has been over a decade since the last backpack bomb”, these won’t come back.

On the other hand, Ian is also right. This is an MO that is suitable for Israel. In Israel, no sane business would even remotely consider advertising using abandoned puffed bags. This is not the case for the US.

Every aspect of normal life can be utilized by the “bad guys” to cause an attack. It is not sane to stop all aspects just because they CAN be exploited. It makes more sense to stick to what is likely to be exploited.


Brent Royal-Gordon April 18, 2007 12:15 AM

What’s interesting to me is not that the Boston PD overreacted; it’s that the site operator probably counted on them overreacting. I doubt anybody in Boston didn’t hear about their dumb cops, so I strongly suspect that she purposefully exploited the bomb squad’s overreaction to get cheap publicity.

And it worked. I got an invite to earlier today; it was from a friend of mine who reads this blog.

Landrubek April 18, 2007 1:27 AM

This sounds all hippie but it’s true anyway:

We need to make sure there is room for the artist and prankster and nonconformist in our society. We need people to do weird, unexpected things like hang up glowing lights in odd places, or paint their car with fingerpaints, or stand in the town common and perform a soft sonata on the tuba. We need fish ties and skydivers. We need surprises and performances and feasts of fools. We need children to tell knock-knock jokes and hang up backpacks on fences, make mobiles out of Barbies, dress up the dogs in people clothes and ride their bicycles through piles of leaves. We really need more firecrackers and bottle rockets at Fourth of July and New Years Day. We should associate explosions with celebration and not with slaughter — we need more happy explosions.

Otherwise we will all petrify and turn grim. Firecrackers are not safe, but creeping senescense and humorlessness are deadly too.

When ordinary life becomes pinched, stale, and flat such that the sight of a few backpacks hanging in a tree so astonishes us, seems so alien and inscrutable, that we call the bomb squad, then we have a real problem. We shouldn’t blame the bomb squad alone, we should blame ourselves too. Is not the cure to be more of a freak? It’s not too late: go out and do something bizarre today, just because you are free.

Nick Lancaster April 18, 2007 1:48 AM

Regarding the VT shootings, isn’t whether or not campus police ‘locked down’ the campus based on their perceptions as to their having ‘the answer’ (i.e. some kind of domestic disturbance, we are questioning the suspect)?

Is that a sensible decision? Was there anything, such as a discrepancy in eyewitness accounts, that would have indicated they either had the wrong perp, or that there was possibly a second person involved?

As for the backpacks-in-trees stuff, yes, it’s sensible to be aware of loose bags in odd places. But the intersection of the sets ‘loose bags’ and ‘explosive devices’ must be relatively small, and reduced even further when one adds ‘odd places’.

This isn’t so much about the BPD being paranoid, but that we’ve been fed so much garbage about the hidden hordes of evil terrorists plotting to overthrow our government, infiltrate our society, and Destroy Our Way of Life that we’re not stopping to think. It’s not the terrorists who are controlling us thus, it’s the people who are telling you to be afraid.

Please also note the contradiction – terrorists attack on 9/11 and we’re told we must sacrifice civil liberties and surrender our constitutional protections under the 4th Amendment. A lone gunman goes on a rampage at VT, and among the first things the President says is that he believes in an individual’s right to bear arms.

Why is one more sacrosanct than the other?

Anonymous April 18, 2007 2:05 AM

Regarding the VT shootings: Oh we do so love our drama.

the media give us what we watch/buy.

“Are not you Entertained?”

Sean April 18, 2007 2:43 AM

I think a key thing people are missing here is the number and set up of the backpacks. That’s important because I don’t think Police reacted so strongly over the fact that there were backpacks in a “strange place.” As another poster noted, principals all over pick up miscellaneous backpacks all the time and no one says boo.

Why I suspect they got scared here is because the backpacks, by there being a number of them and having them obviously have been carefully prepared, suggest that a group was involved carrying out a plan. It just so happens that the plan was completely benign, as you would probably expect, given the low US terror rate.

But, the point is it’s not a question of “Jee, I see a backpack, how many backpacks in the US contain bombs?” It’s “Jee, I see a couple of backpacks that some group with some unknown level of resources has carefully put here after thinking about it a while. How likely is THAT to be malicious?” And the only reasonable answer you could give, particularly because it’s a risk analysis and the cost of being wrong is huge, would be shit I don’t know.

I know it’s tempting and easy to throw crap when you have the benefit of hindsight, but I think we should avoid it here, and probably with the ATHF stuff too. It was the same thing there, obviously organized, had resources behind it, and was fairly highly planned. That kind of stuff is rare, and if people want to play it safe that’s fine by me. That doesn’t mean they need to shut down the whole fucking city, which was obviously stupid, but if, as in this case, people want to spend maybe a few thousand dollars to bring out a bomb bot, who cares. It’s hardly a big drain on our tax dollars, and there’s plenty of other better stuff to worry about.

Fred April 18, 2007 10:30 AM


There is little reason to think after a homicide that it is a precursor to a further rampage. Especially in this case, where they thought they had the guy (the girl’s boyfriend).

Anonymous April 18, 2007 10:38 AM


You’ve ignored the fact that student_murderer_still_on_the_loose and perpetrator_still_at_large were not givens. In fact, the P of each was very low prior to the second round of shootings.

cdmiller April 18, 2007 11:18 AM

@sean “But, the point is it’s not a question of “Jee, I see a backpack, how many backpacks in the US contain bombs?” It’s “Jee, I see a couple of backpacks that some group with some unknown level of resources has carefully put here after thinking about it a while. How likely is THAT to be malicious?” And the only reasonable answer you could give, particularly because it’s a risk analysis and the cost of being wrong is huge, would be shit I don’t know.”

By this logic we should be beefing up our galactic defenses, after all the costs of a meteor attack by space aliens would be huge , and lots of folks see strange lights in the sky.

I once watched the Tucson bomb squad detonate a baloney sandwich some guy left in a briefcase he had forgotten on a parkway downtown, long before this 9/11 BS. It was absurd then, and it is absurd now.

Sean April 18, 2007 11:39 AM

What? If you thought that there was a non-zero chance that those lights were aliens, yeah you might want to think about forming a contingency plan.

You made a stupid comment, and the relationships are all out of whack. There’s no reason to think there are aliens attacking, and building any type of defense would probably cost trillions of dollars for unknown benefit. There’s some reason to think backpacks left by an organized group are dangerous, and making sure is cheap and effective. See the difference?

Don’t be a stupid asshole.

Glock23 April 18, 2007 2:06 PM

Stupidity would have been to NOT call the bomb squad! The police did exactly the right thing. I wouldn’t have volunteered to walk up and check out those backpacks, and I bet you wouldn’t have either.

cdmiller April 18, 2007 2:23 PM

@sean “You made a stupid comment, and the relationships are all out of whack. There’s no reason to think there are aliens attacking, and building any type of defense would probably cost trillions of dollars for unknown benefit. There’s some reason to think backpacks left by an organized group are dangerous, and making sure is cheap and effective. See the difference?”

Your justification for blowing up backpacks left on a school yard after 2500 free ones were recently given away is far fetched. It is not cheap to send bomb squad folks around blowing up all misplaced or thrown away objects on school grounds, and it is not effective. Further, there are lots of organized groups in the world placing creative advertisements in the popular culture, to assume all of thier actions are those of potential terrorists is absurd. Finally, personal attack only weakens any validity your arguments might posses.

Pat Cahalan April 18, 2007 6:04 PM

@ Landrubek

Good point.

Hippie value judgements on various oddball behaviors nonwithstanding, planning should include precisely these failure cases anyway.

Put another way, whether “goofy behavior” is good for society or not isn’t the only question. The equally important question is, “since goofy behavior is going to happen anyway, our security measures should take that into account, else we’re going to waste a lot of resources on false alarms.”

@ Glock23

I bet you wouldn’t have either.

On the contrary, people leave stuff behind all the time on the campus where I work. I pick up the bag/jacket/whatever, open it, and see if I can find identifying information in it.

The likelihood of this behavior resulting in my becoming an initial victim to a Mad Bomber is statistically vanishingly insignificant in comparison to my likelihood of failing to survive the 2.5 mile walk/drive to work every day. 5,702 people died due to fatal occupational injuries in 2005 (source Compare that to 427 people killed in the 10 years between 1988 and 1997 by explosive devices (source

Put another way, you’re 134 times as likely to be killed by some other random accident in the workplace as you are by a bomb. How do you go to work in the mornining?

Sean April 18, 2007 9:19 PM

@cdmiller. Read my damn post for crying out loud, and stop trying to stretch what I say. All I’m saying is that if in the rare instances that suspicious packages are left around schools, bridges, etc, in ways that make it obvious they were intentionally left by a group as part of a plan, we can exercise somewhat rediculous caution. This isn’t a detonate any out of place piece of litter recommendation. Clearly thats a bad trade off, because people leave stuff all over. But organized placement of suspicious stuff by groups is rare, and creeps people out. If those people don’t want to bet their career on guessing what’s inside a package and want to spend a few thousand dollars making sure its benign, I could care less. Bruce posts every time the police do this, and thats about two or three times a month. Who the fuck cares.

And about the stupid asshole comment. Seriously. Your point was stupid, the alien thing was a bad analogy, and you used aliens in an attempt to make me look childish which would be assholish. Thus, a stupid asshole.

It’s not a big deal though, I don’t know you and it isn’t meant to be personal. Maybe you were tired.

Sean April 18, 2007 9:25 PM


I’m unsure. What would you do if there were four identical labeled backpacks, and there was a crowd of people saying “someone thinks this is a bomb.” I hate all the stupid “let’s lose our minds because it kills 12 people a year” attitude too, but I don’t think I’d be able to go get those backpacks, and I don’t think you would either. Once the thought of your impending doom is rooted in your head, it’s impossible to make good decisions, even if just getting the packs were the obviously good decision. To the extent that death is as bad as it gets, in a risk analysis, infinity times a really small number is still infinity, and so the packs get blown up by a bot.

Am I wrong?

salach shabati April 19, 2007 1:54 AM

It is easy to laugh at stuff like this when the responsibility is not yours…

Here in Israel the police handles hundreds of such cases each day (!) and manages to do it without disrupting life . All the cases are false alarms but it is well accepted by the public and adds to the feeling of security . calling the local equivelant of 911 will bring a police car quite fast and if they cant reach a decision a bomb specialist will arrive very quickly .
It is obvious that most of the cases will be false alarms but with all the bad guys in our world it is wise to be cautious . It should be done wisely and not in “Keystone Cops” style though…

Pat Cahalan April 19, 2007 2:23 AM

What would you do if there were four identical labeled backpacks

Unless there is some very good reason to suspect that these might be dangerous (news reports that similar backpacks were in fact bombs…), four identically labeled backpacks actually seems more likely to be a prank than a single abandoned pack. Serious bombmakers don’t design their bombs to stand out.

there was a crowd of people saying “someone thinks this is a bomb.”

Unless they’re dressed in SWAT gear and/or military fatigues (even then I’d be pretty incredulous), a crowd of people is more likely to be responding to group hysteria.

If the cops were already on their way, then yes, I’d wait for them to show up, since the resource expenditure has pretty much already taken place, and really, I don’t much care to be grilled by the arriving police officers and have to listen to some beanhead try to tell me I was acting irresponsibly.

Once the thought of your impending doom is rooted in your
head, it’s impossible to make good decisions

If this were true, it would be impossible to get people to be firefighters, police, military, bomb disposal personnel, private security guards…

To the extent that death is as bad as it gets

This statement pretty much eliminates your ability to perform any reasonable risk analysis. Death is not as bad as it gets, for one thing, and if you choose to never do anything that may bring about death, well, you should check out the CDC site, or the Bureau of Labor Statistics… you’ll pretty much be unable to get out of bed in the morning. I blogged about this on my own site (plug).

In a risk analysis, infinity times a really small number is still infinity

No, it’s not. Mathematically speaking, what you’re saying doesn’t really make sense. You need to rehash basic calculus limit theory.

Let’s put solid numbers here. I found an FBI study that listed 427 deaths over a 10 year period due to explosives. That’s 42.7 a year. It’s a little out of date, but I imagine the numbers are pretty reasonable. There are (according to the CIA factbook) 301,139,947 people in the U.S. as of July this year. So, basically, the probability that you’ll be killed by an explosive device is .00000001418.

Even if you take into account mitigating factors (admittedly this is an extremely basic analysis) the absolute worst you could say is thatI’m off by some crazy amount, like a couple orders of magnitude. Well, that still leaves the probability at .000001418. I’ll take those odds any day.

Hell, it’s more likely that I’ve got some clot in my cardiovascular system and the act of bending down to pick up the backpack causes it to shake free of an arterial wall and zoom up to my brain, causing a catastrophic cerebral hemorrhage and death. I’m 36 and out of shape, that’s a vastly more likely outcome… and still pretty unlikely.

Pat Cahalan April 19, 2007 2:30 AM

@ salach shabati

We’re not talking about suspicious packages in Israel, we’re talking about suspicious packages in the U.S.

You can’t even compare the two environments. Blowing up unknown packages in Israel, where bombings are unfortunately common, may make sense. Here in the U.S., where bombings are a minute risk and a highly unlikely event… no.

Shane April 20, 2007 10:16 AM

@Bruce’s Refuse to be Terrorized

Kudos. Short and to the point. I will say that this is merely common sense on the part of the educated person (in an ideal world), however the masses apparently (really, without surprise) need to be educated. I find that one of the most disturbing issues in our country, that speaks to this end and many others, is the apparent lack of education and critical thinking on the part of both the majority of our populace, and the politicians who cater to them. When the majority of the populace (as well as the media, who without shame cater to the masses) is unsuitable to make educated decisions based on rational, critical thought, our political system shows its true colors (failings?) at its inability to do anything that may ‘hurt them at the polls’ despite it being the right thing to do.

We are a weak, fat and stupid country, drunk on our own sense of monetary (albeit falsely) and military strength, and more and more it’s becoming quite clear that we’re not doing too much to make a u-turn off the road to becoming more idiotic and reactionary. Things around here just seem to keep getting fatter and dumber… oh, and dare I say more religious? Every joe-jack anti-abortionist from the south who’s preaching jeebus while beating his wife and molesting the children is a saint now-a-days…. sigh when will it end?

Hah, sorry to veer off into an opinionated rant, but again, kudos. Thanks for giving people something to think about every day.

SW April 23, 2007 4:39 PM

@ Jim

The former, sad indeed.
The latter, well, I’d wager that until ‘uptopia’ beats us into blissful conformity, we should nearly always assume (regardless of ideals) that any door we leave unlocked will be opened by someone else (literally and figuratively).

Guroda December 3, 2008 5:52 PM

It is obvious that most of the cases will be false alarms but with all the bad guys in our world it is wise to be cautious . It should be done wisely and not in “Keystone Cops” style though…

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