English Professor Reported for Recycling Paper While Looking Middle Eastern

This is just awful:

Because of my recycling, the bomb squad came, then the state police. Because of my recycling, buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, the campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not even that. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us "safe."

[...]

What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall -- who was watched, noted and reported, all in a day's work? Today, we gave in willingly and wholeheartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police one another and report on one another. Such behaviors exist most strongly in closed, undemocratic and fascist societies.

Posted on April 25, 2007 at 3:02 PM • 98 Comments

Comments

Older But Not Much WiserApril 25, 2007 3:28 PM

Once upon a time, Catholics were reviled as a "fifth column" in the United States.

This century, it's the Muslims' turn to be feared on sight.

Matt from CTApril 25, 2007 3:35 PM

It is awful to read another article by a biggoted, prejudiced liberal.

Had to be race. Had to be a climate of fear.

He does a pretty good job "knowing" what the other person -- who unless I missed something he never spoke too -- was thinking.

That's downright Orwellian -- it's called Thought Crime.

Yes, the police again may have acted with excess caution.

But unfortunately all the article did was reinforce my experience -- in person and online -- that the most openly bigotted and prejudiced people are liberals since they don't even see their own bigotry and prejudices.

MomotaroApril 25, 2007 3:35 PM

He knows the ROTC student made the call how? It doesn't say or I missed it. He has proof? If not, maybe the uniformed paranoid really was just checking out his attention-getting car? Now who is acting out of fear and ignorance?

Geoff LaneApril 25, 2007 3:37 PM

A lot of the so called "war on terror" on both sides of the Atlantic looks more and more like justification for overt racist behaviour.

The pronouncements by Bush&Blair are not creating an alert population, they are creating a scared population. Scared people do stupid things; scared mobs kill strangers.

NathanApril 25, 2007 3:45 PM

Lets go ahead and post the other releveant parts of the article, like:

"That man in the parking lot didn't even see me. He saw my darkness. He saw my Middle Eastern descent. This is ironic because though my grandfathers came from Egypt, I am Indian, a South Asian, and could never be mistaken for a Middle Eastern man by anyone who had ever met one."

Another victim of racial profiling.... or was it common sense?

"One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my description -- a Middle Eastern man driving a white Beetle with out of state plates"

Oh, the story unfolds. A middle-eastern man, with out of state plates, retrieves something from his trunk, places it in a recycling bin, and drives off...

Some one needs to give the ROTC guy a pat on the back for being alert, aware, and taking the necessary action. Someone award him for using common-sense.

JoshuaApril 25, 2007 3:53 PM

Yes, because terrorists are blowing up recycling bins all across America every day. Can't cross the damned street without bumping into an exploding recycling bin.

Kevin RApril 25, 2007 3:54 PM

I too was appalled at the postings on alternet. Do these people not realize that middle-eastern muslim men have been attacking and killing Americans for over 30 years?!? Instead they believe the 9/11 attacks were staged by our government. Now that's some unreasonable fear-mongering. But these idiots actually believe the ROTC guy is the one spreading fear.

The ROTC guy responded exactly as he should have, and I would hope that anyone else seeing the same situation, would also call the police. Yes, there will be lots of false positives; look at the universities on the day after the VTech shootings. But it only takes one missed incident to kill hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.

We are at war, people! It's time we started acting like it!

IcksterApril 25, 2007 3:57 PM

@Nathan: So you're saying that putting out recycling while being middle-eastern qualifies as suspicious and is justification for calling the bomb squad.

And you don't see a problem with that?

merkelcellcancerApril 25, 2007 4:01 PM

@We are at war, people! It's time we started acting like it!

Yes, ever since "Mission Accomplished," we are being told "We are at war, people! It's time we started acting like it!"

We the people no longer believe this fear baiting and will no longer support this War.

GeorgeApril 25, 2007 4:12 PM

WTF.

2 Things.

#1 Didn't any of you see the australia nuke plant video?

#2 De we want to spend our money on investigating every one who leaves something by a garbage bin or recycling bin?

The world IS a dangerous place but this is not how we should spend our time, money and energy.

pointfreeApril 25, 2007 4:14 PM

@Kevin R: "We are at war, people! It's time we started acting like it!"

Unfortunately your country does think it is at war and they are acting like it. Problem is, there isn't a war in the context you are being told and the enemy isn't who/what you are led to believe it is.

jo-joApril 25, 2007 4:19 PM

"Some one needs to give the ROTC guy a pat on the back for being alert, aware, and taking the necessary action. Someone award him for using common-sense."

So the "common sense" part was where he thought someone placing items *into* a recycling bin was suspicious? (Damn him!) Or when he mis-identified an *Indian* as Middle-Eastern? Hmmm...

APB: Be on the lookout for those Beetle-driving, recycling, hippie-terrorists!

Another KevinApril 25, 2007 4:21 PM

Wow Bruce, looks like you've got a dedicated bunch of freepers on this site who've decided to make it their mission to shout down anything that disagrees with the "War On Terror" party line.

Keep up the good work, and if these bozos can't see what these things have to do with security, as in real security, well, let them be ignorant.

antimediaApril 25, 2007 4:21 PM

pointfree displays the typical ignorance of someone who closes their eyes and ears and refuses to face reality.

"Following are excerpts from a sermon delivered by Ahmad Bahr, acting speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, which aired on Sudan TV on April 13, 2007.

Ahmad Bahr: "You will be victorious" on the face of this planet. You are the masters of the world on the face of this planet. Yes, [the Koran says that] "you will be victorious," but only "if you are believers." Allah willing, "you will be victorious," while America and Israel will be annihilated, Allah willing. I guarantee you that the power of belief and faith is greater than the power of America and Israel. They are cowards, as is said in the Book of Allah: "You shall find them the people most eager to protect their lives." They are cowards, who are eager for life, while we are eager for death for the sake of Allah. That is why America's nose was rubbed in the mud in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, and everywhere."

That was posted on MEMRI. Go ahead and call them racist now.

It's not been a week or so since a madman slaughtered 32 innocent students at Virginia Tech. Yet some idiots are outraged that a ROTC student would give an accurate description of a man who left a box next to (not IN) a recycling bin and drove away - on a college campus.

If you don't get it by now, you never will.

Some of you should read Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings". You might actually learn something about racism.

SteveApril 25, 2007 4:29 PM

"That man in the parking lot didn't even see me. He saw my darkness. He saw my Middle Eastern descent. "

And he saw him take a box from his car (with out of state plates), and put it next to (not in) a trash can (not a recycling bin) which was "outside" a college building.

To all of you who thinks that's not suspicious, I'm glad you're not in charge of my security.

SpiderApril 25, 2007 4:30 PM

"For a moment today, without even knowing it, driving away from campus in my little Beetle, exhausted after a day of teaching, listening to Justin Timberlake on the radio, I ceased to be a person when a man I had never met looked straight through me and saw the violence in his own heart."


Yup, Justin Timberlake has issues. When will he learn that love can only come from the inside?

Guilty-of-somethingApril 25, 2007 4:32 PM

I'd like a little more exercising of critical reasoning skills, please.

And before folks get too wound up "better safe than sorry", tell me that after you have been mistakenly accused.

Too many folks are all for taking no chances as long as they are not the ones who have to prove their innocence.

In this case he didn't end up "assisting the police" for 16 hours straight, because he was a prof, people were willing to risk vouching for him, and it was obvious there was no bomb.

Uh, wait. Maybe he was testing the system...

AnonymousApril 25, 2007 4:37 PM

"Oh, the story unfolds. A middle-eastern man, with out of state plates, retrieves something from his trunk, places it in a recycling bin, and drives off..."

Ohno! A Middle Eastern factulty member (with a faculty parking sticker on his car, which was misreported by the ROTC person) was recycling! Call the FBI!

We're afraid of our own shadows anymore. Should we start with giving Middle Easterners their own recycling facilities so they can be environmentally friendly without being suspected terrorists?

pointfreeApril 25, 2007 4:37 PM

@antimedia - your "reality" maybe, but certainly not the reality shared by much of the free "non murrigan" world. Its a shame people are so quick to attribute a different opinion to ignorance, as it usually reflects their own rather than those they are commenting on.

John C. KirkApril 25, 2007 4:38 PM

I have to agree with the other people who aren't taking this report at face value (e.g. not being certain about who reported him).

For instance, he complains about the way his colleague was dealt with by security when she stuck up for him, although presumably he wasn't present, so it's a second hand account. Beyond that, let's look at it from the police point of view: they get a description of a Middle Eastern man, she says that she thinks they're talking about the poetry professor, so they ask her what country the professor is from. Is it possible that they wanted to check the description, i.e. they were asking whether the professor was in fact Middle Eastern? If I'd asked someone a question and then they started shouting at me, I'd probably ask them to bugger off (or "back away") too.

I'd also say that this sounds like a pretty weird way to do recycling, although maybe things are different in the USA. When he referred to the "trash can", is that the bin for actual rubbish (i.e. destined for landfill), or a dedicated recycling bin? In the UK, we have green recycling boxes which can be left out for collection, but from the sound of it he'd just left a normal cardboard box. I'm not saying that he should be treated like a terrorist, but in London he'd probably be arrested for fly-tipping instead.

AtlanticistApril 25, 2007 4:40 PM

From a UK reader: After reading the comments, I found myself comparing the "War on terror" mindset to McCarthyism. Perhaps the USA is revisiting old ground in a new guise?

DaleApril 25, 2007 4:40 PM

I've dropped stuff off for recycling, after dark, in a car with out-of-state license plates...

jimfApril 25, 2007 4:41 PM

Vogon poetry can be dangerous...the 3d worse in the known universe...

Jim F.

iwormsApril 25, 2007 4:49 PM

1. Frustration makes terrorists.

2. "My family was punished for nothing. So let it be for something now." (from the movie Catch a Fire)

AlexApril 25, 2007 4:57 PM

I'm not sure what made me wonder more, this horrible story (it looks like US reality is starting to imitate that 1998 movie "The Siege") or the appalling reactions (e.g. "better safe than sorry" and "we're at war" etc.). Both show the picture of a country full of frightened, ignorant, white boys that have never been anywhere else.
Bruce, please keep up teaching critical reasoning skills.

suomynonaApril 25, 2007 5:08 PM

FTA: "Today, we gave in willingly and wholeheartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling."

Well said.

GeorgeApril 25, 2007 5:13 PM

Now if gotten shampoo, lotion, or other personal care products out of his care and left them near the bin, now that would've been *REALLY* suspicous. Those of us who fly know how dangerous they can be.

@Alex
Living in the US is a real exercise every single day. In a few years people will laugh at the current leaders much the way we laugh at McCarthyism today.

@Atlanticist

Hey, that's what I say!!!!

kiwanoApril 25, 2007 5:14 PM

there's definitely a problem with bad risk assessment here. i mean if the prof had been a terrorist, he would have placed his package _inside_ the garbage can, so that he could do the damage with a little more shrapnel. we don't need to be in the lookout for people putting things beside garbage cans, but rather every time someone puts something _in_ a garbage can, there ought to be an investigation.

Nick LancasterApril 25, 2007 5:25 PM

@ Kevin R.

"We are at war, people! It's time we started acting like it!"

====

If you are not an active-duty member of the armed forces, it's time you came out of your play fort under the card table and did some growing up, little boy. That comment has to be one of the most mindless, jingoistic pieces of drivel I've ever seen.

I, myself, prefer to think that a cardboard box placed near a garbage can is, in fact, garbage, rather than a suspicious act that had to be reported by a vigilant citizen.

If all it takes to cast you into a state of abject fear is an unmarked cardboard box, I'm afraid you're making it far too easy for the terrorists to impact our lives, rather than the opposite.

AndrewApril 25, 2007 5:25 PM

I'm going to take a radically different tack. I believe that the ROTC student calling the police was totally justified, and a good move.

I believe that the police behavior was a bit off the hook. FI the guy, sure. But once he establishes his bona fides, apologize for the inconvenience and move forward. Certainly no need to dump and evacuate buildings or cause chaos or hysteria.

The police should never, ever forget that they work for us. Not vice versa.

Evan MurphyApril 25, 2007 5:27 PM

Steve F:
> he saw him take a box from his car (with out of state plates), and put it next to (not in) a trash can (not a recycling bin) which was "outside" a college building.

> To all of you who thinks that's not suspicious, I'm glad you're not in charge of my security.

And *I'm* glad that you're not in charge of my college. I can't imagine any less suspicious way to get rid of a large box of paper. And why the scare quotes around "outside"? I must've missed the part where the definition of "outside" was up for debate.

So I guess the right thing to do now is to call the police and let them know every time I'm planning on disposing of anything bulky? Weren't we just talking about misusing police resources?

FridzApril 25, 2007 5:28 PM


I have read a lot of apalling stories like this one and the thing that bothers me the most about them is what they say about the US today. They show a country that has lost to terrorism, they show a terrorized country.

I know that this kind of incidents have been and are happening all over the US. Can you imagine the loss of productivity and waste resulting from all this irrational behaviour? This will and probably has affected the economy in a very significant ways, giving the terrorists even more than they could have dreamed of. I don't think those despicable terrorists that planned the attacks on 9/11 could have foreseen how much damage they have done to american culture and society.

My only hope lies with the capitalist market system. Surely, businesses will relize that fear is the opposite of greed (they know already that greed is necessary for profits).

dragonfrogApril 25, 2007 5:28 PM

And of course, a real terrorist would not keep a bomb in a cardboard box with books on top - he would put it in a garbage bag. So we need to call the bomb squad everytime someone puts a black plastic garbage bag in the garbage.

foggApril 25, 2007 5:36 PM

Having dark skin isn't inconsistent with being middle-eastern (e.g. Arab). Neither is driving an inexpensive, sticker-decorated car. Arabs are quite capable of doing that. A middle-eastern man dropping off a large heavy box next to a building belonging to a public institution doesn't really exclude the possibility of a new terrorist strategy. Being a member of the ROTC doesn't forbid the possibility that this was the person who called the police about a 'suspicious character', nor does it exclude the possibility of being motivated primarily by (misperceived) race. Being a policeman doesn't forbid racial fear, either.

On the other hand, there isn't enough certainty anywhere in there to justify the intervention of a bomb squad or the publication of a 'call to arms' against racist malefactors. As an alternative to these, everyone could just chill out and operate on de-escalating assumptions instead of assuming the worst about everyone based on appearances (from a distance he looked middle-eastern, middle-eastern men with boxes are terrorists, there was an ROTC person present who must have been responsible, everyone was motivated primarily by racial fear, not about other aspects of appearance or behavior which haven't been described by anyone). Hysteria needs lots of emotional participants to really get going, and calm, reasoned responses can go a long way to diffusing the situation.

I approve of efforts to remind people not to jump to hasty "witch-hysteria" conclusions regarding terrorism, but I find articles like this one contributory to an environment of fear, as opposed to helpful in ameliorating it.

Justin ThymeApril 25, 2007 5:38 PM

Another demonstration of how truly vulnerable we are....if anyone wants to shut down America, all they need do is place multiple boxes of poetry and Light Bright toys in and around American cities in a coordinated fashion.

It'd be funny if it weren't serious. The right-winger/Bush supporters of this country mistake Fear for Strength, and Stubborn-ness for Faith. How incredibly weak we've become.

Time to vote the Fearful out of office, and the Wise back in!!

Brandioch ConnerApril 25, 2007 5:43 PM

@fogg
How does this article contribute to "an environment of fear"?

If anything, it shows that racial profiling is flawed.

Articles like these are useful for showing that the majority of non-whites are not the "bad guys" that certain people would like to portray them as.

UNTERApril 25, 2007 5:45 PM

Fridz: My only hope lies with the capitalist market system. Surely, businesses will relize that fear is the opposite of greed (they know already that greed is necessary for profits).

====

Unfortunately, fear also keeps people inside watching TV, and ordering crap off the internet. So fear by the people isn't the opposite of corporate greed - they work hand in hand.

=====

Lordy, the psychological disturbance on this thread show how afeared the right-wing is that their "master plan" (baaahahaha!) is falling apart. To seriously try to defend this obvious over-reaction by everyone involved is just madness.

Obviously, if you were actually trying to bomb for terrorist reasons, you'd do it where there were actually a whole lot of people - such as the student union most universities have. A little box outside a building will cause nil damage or national panic. How many pipe bomb go off everyday in every American city, for God's sake? So both ROTC boy was hyperventilating, and Mr. Copper went into CYA mode rather than using the brains God gave him (and appears wasted).

They both should be held accountable for wasting university and public resources. Until folks are held accountable for stupid, CYA behavior, this is going to keep on going on.

Steve (no "F")April 25, 2007 5:54 PM

@Evan:
The quotes were to emphasize the word outside because that's what the article said. That the trash can was outside the building. One can assume that means "close to" the building. That means that a bomb placed in that position would have devastating effects to the building and also use the building as a reflector causing the shock waves to travel farther in the opposite direction also.

I don't know what "scare quotes" are that you speak of, but my quotes were there because I wasn't sure what "outside" meant from the context, so I used the most obvious meaning.

And if you're looking for a less suspicious way to get rid of a large box of paper, try:
1) leave it in the trash at home rather than driving it to school.
2) leave it next to your personal trash can, in your personal office.
3) and before you say "but he wanted to do his part for a cleaner planet and recycle it"...take it to a recycler. Don't leave it next to a trash can in a public place.

RalphApril 25, 2007 5:57 PM

The land of fat and home of the afraid.

I wonder who pays for the cost of shutting institutions down every time there isn't a bomb?

RoyApril 25, 2007 6:29 PM

Americans, the war on terror is over. You lost: you're terrified. Of everything from harmless pranks to boxes of garbage to stage swords. Might as well surrender. Or, you could win, by just losing your fear. It's up to you!

RalphApril 25, 2007 6:46 PM

@Jim

Gee and I thought that we held some things to be self evident, among them, that all men are created equal.

Just how far have you fallen?

FridzApril 25, 2007 6:48 PM

@UNTER
Fridz: My only hope lies with the capitalist market system. Surely, businesses will relize that fear is the opposite of greed (they know already that greed is necessary for profits).

====

Unfortunately, fear also keeps people inside watching TV, and ordering crap off the internet. So fear by the people isn't the opposite of corporate greed - they work hand in hand.

=====

You are right the fear could keep people inside watching TV and ordering crap off the internet. But if everyone is home doing that, they must be ordering the crap from abroad, making the crap-economy even crappier.

Smee JenkinsApril 25, 2007 7:11 PM

The problem isn't the suspicious activity. The problem is people being stupid and irrational out of fear.

So a suspicious guy puts a box next to a trash can. What do you do? How about going and TAKING A LOOK before doing something drastic like calling the police. It's almost certainly not a bomb, and even if it was, it won't detonate from you looking at it.

That, right there, is the point. People are letting fear overrule reason. A theme that Bruce revisits regularly.

UNTERApril 25, 2007 7:21 PM

@fridz:

But who said that business give a crap about our crap-o economy? Sure, small businesses do, but remember, we've been --- globalized ---

Wall Street can go up as our local (national) economy goes down. If fear leads to that, why should folks who own vacation homes in Nice care about what happens in Topeka?

UNTERApril 25, 2007 7:28 PM

@Smee,

It's not just fear. It's paranoid fantasies and CYA. You're right, you look into something that appears suspicion. Maybe you call the cops. They're supposed to investigate, rather than go half-cocked over every tiny suspicion.

It's like my calling the cops and telling them that I think my neighbor might be beating his wife, because I saw a bruise on her legs. Then they respond with, well better safe than sorry, and go in to the guy's house with all guns blazing. You know, he might be some kinda psycho barricaded in his house with an armory - unlikely, but there's at least a 0.001% probability!

antimediaApril 25, 2007 7:30 PM

@Ralph "The land of fat and home of the afraid.

I wonder who pays for the cost of shutting institutions down every time there isn't a bomb?"

I wonder who pays for the cost of not shutting down every time people are killed?

It sure is easy to criticize the actions of others when you have 20/20 hindsight and no skin in the game.

Prudence dictates that the police respond to a suspected bomb threat (not overreact) and investigate. To not do so would be a dereliction of their duty to protect and serve.

The professor's reaction to the situation is just as much an overreaction as the police. But some don't want to admit that because they have a bias that they need to promote.

When you view everything through a racial prism, every act is racist. Sometimes a clerk who treats you badly isn't racist, they're simply rude, and sometimes a person who reports suspicious behavior is simply a person who reports suspicious behavior.

If this incident had turned out badly, the same people who claim racism now would be criticizing the police for not taking the threat seriously.

dizzykjApril 25, 2007 7:31 PM

...when they came for me, there was no-one left to speak out.

I find this story, and so many of the comments deeply sad. That we now live in a culture where fear of the unknown has become the norm.

I live in the UK, but I think that this is where all western governments and our media are leading us.

If we are fearful, we will elect them.
If we are fearful, we will buy papers.
If we are fearful, we can be controlled.

UNTERApril 25, 2007 7:50 PM

@antimedia:

Wahhh Wahh Wahh! All those big bad brown people oppressing whitey! With the history of oppression of whites, I can see how even the possibility of misinterpretation by somebody brown of an incident as racist is a real threat to all that is holy and good.

Was whitey always this whiney? Was he always so afraid? Is American history one giant episode of group projection?

DanApril 25, 2007 7:57 PM

Some of the reactions to this story are truly appalling.

10 years ago when I first read 1984, I was slightly concerned that modern reality was starting to show signs of similarity to Oceania.

Now I'm convinced they are one and the same.

We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia.... and always will be.

TikvaApril 25, 2007 8:01 PM

It's interesting to me that Americans seem to think that they have a choice about whether or not they are at war. As one poster pointed out, you've been at war for thirty years. You just didn't realize it until 9-11.

When America becomes like Israel, with bombs going off on buses and in shopping malls you will start to look at incidents such as these with a very different point of view. And if you think that's not going to happen, then you are truly naive about the threat you face.


>>"We are at war, people! It's time we started acting like it!"

====

>>If you are not an active-duty member of the armed forces, it's time you came out of your play fort under the card table and did some growing up, little boy. That comment has to be one of the most mindless, jingoistic pieces of drivel I've ever seen.
>>

I think the point of this overused cliche is that this is not a war of armies. Anyone who is American or Israeli faces an enemy of hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of men, women and tragically even children. An enemy who fanatically believes that it has orders directly from God to kill you and your family. If you are not prepared to face that fact, then you will be destroyed by these fanatics.

You think this war is over? It's barely even started. America, look at Israel and see your future. How do you think this incident would have been treated if it occurred in Tel Aviv?

VoodooApril 25, 2007 8:03 PM

Public recycling bins are commonly used by people up to no good to dispose of their things. How many aborted babies have been found in the dumpster?

That this guy was hanging around the dumpster made him suspicious. That he was middle-eastern doubled it. It was the only sensible thing to do; call the police and check out his story.

9/11 may not have happened were people as diligent then.

foggApril 25, 2007 8:07 PM

@Brandioch Conner: How does this article contribute to "an environment of fear"?

The author assumes that the ROTC guy called the cops, and that the call was based primarily on racial motivation. We know neither of these things, but we are encouraged to be certain of both, and to be sufficiently frightened of the implications that we respond emotionally to them. This is a positive feedback loop.

"That man in the parking lot didn't even see me. He saw my darkness. He saw my Middle Eastern descent."

Or he reacted to 'suspicious behavior'. Was he acting suspiciously? Well, anyone from India reading this article is certainly encouraged to be furtive and nervous rather than casual or friendly when handling garbage in back alleys and parking lots hereafter, and furtive and nervous behavior is suspicious. So are defensive postures like hunching, which are also natural responses to fear. Confidence and smiles are not suspicious, and had he smiled and waved a the ROTC guy, this might not have happened. It might have avoided the situation even if the ROTC guy wasn't the witness who called the cops, since the ROTC guy probably would have waved back, and seeing that interchange would have convinced a third party that all was well.

Pointing out the possibility of prejudice against race (middle eastern or Indian) cultural cues (an inexpensive car or an ROTC uniform), or what have you , is a useful check on a real problem, and could be done in a reasoned way. This article was more of an emotional appeal to fear a faceless conspiracy of "hatred and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us 'safe,'" and it may actually exacerbate the problem.

If you think people are getting paranoid, it's time to be extra calm and reasonable, not twitchy and paranoid yourself.

LandruBekApril 25, 2007 8:27 PM

quoting antimedia: "It's not been a week or so since a madman slaughtered 32 innocent students at Virginia Tech. Yet some [people] are outraged that a ROTC student would give an accurate description of a man who left a box next to (not IN) a recycling bin and drove away - on a college campus."

Non sequitur. Even though a student shot down a lot of people at Virginia Tech, that does not mean it is appropriate to call the police when elsewhere a college faculty member recycles paper slightly inappropriately! In fact it is an unreasonable, arguably unpatriotic, to waste our limited security resources on exploding-bin fantasies. And it is racist to act on these fantasies only when darker-skinned folk are the principals. In short the outraged people are not the ones who are the idiots here.

You mention the prof did so, "and drove away" -- would it be better if he stayed there loitering?

Quoting again, "Prudence dictates that the police respond to a suspected bomb threat."
Suspicion is in the eye of the beholder. There is reasonable suspicion and unreasonable suspicion. This suspicion is barking madness. If it were reasonable, where is the historical precedent? How often has any similar m.o. been used for a bombing in the USA? I speculate that you would probably have to go back to the 20's to find something akin. Or did the witness see anything bomb-like? No, just a box. Come now, exploding recycling bins?! Sure it's possible, but it's not a reasonable suspicion.

I am sure that a white guy dropping off recycling, even sloppily, would not raise suspicion. Fear and racism like this is destroying America, like an autoimmune disease.

SteveApril 25, 2007 8:34 PM

@Smee
What about that story told you that by looking at it they would be able to determine that it wasn't a bomb? I don't read that anywhere. No, looking at it won't set it off, but opening the top to look inside certainly could. Or worse yet, a bomber, standing a safe distance away could wait until you got just close enough...and *click*,*boom*.

If you think that this is paranoid, read the paper...watch the news. It happens every day. Oh, and then go join your local PD, apply for the bomb squad, get trained, and come back and tell me what you think then.

SteveApril 25, 2007 8:42 PM

quoting LandruBek:

"How often has any similar m.o. been used for a bombing in the USA?"
That's a fallacious argument. So what if it's *never* been done? There were never planes flown into buildings in the US before September 11, 2001.

"Come now, exploding recycling bins?!"
Yeah, people said that about Ryder trucks and horse crap before April 18, 1995.

WaldoApril 25, 2007 9:32 PM

Clear case of racial profiling. White guys reporting suspicious behavior and packages are evil.

LandruBekApril 25, 2007 9:58 PM

Not to start a flamefest, but Steve says, "That's a fallacious argument. So what if it's *never* been done?"
Well Steve, it's probably not reasonable to suspect it, without good evidence. I cannot think of a time when terrorists set off small bombs in the USA just to blow up civilians. Whereas hijacking planes is historically well attested; as I recall, it happened often in the 1970s.

And later, "If you think that this is paranoid, read the paper...watch the news. It happens every day." In Iraq it happens every day. It does not happen every day here. Our security measures should take such factors into account.

Filias CupioApril 25, 2007 10:26 PM

I think what is needed are procedures for deaing with low-probability bomb scares. I suggest the following:

1 Police clear the immediate area of bystanders, so far as is practical without major disruption (e.g. divert pedestrians to the other side of the street) and possibly park the police car between the package and a vulnerable area (e.g. the road, which hasn't been blocked off.)

2 One officer inspects the package visually without touching it. If available, they use some cheap-and-portable test for explosives residues.

(Optional 2a: tie a string to the package and drag it (from some distance away) to a more favourable location.)

3 Assuming nothing suspicious comes of the previous step, they open the package cautiously. (If anything is suspicious, escalate to full bomb-scare procedure.)

4 The package isn't a bomb, and normal life resumes.

Doesn't this put the police at greater risk? Of course it does - but it is still much less risky than attending a domestic disturbance, which we expect of police all the time.

TomApril 25, 2007 11:37 PM

"Yes, because terrorists are blowing up recycling bins all across America every day. Can't cross the damned street without bumping into an exploding recycling bin."

It's pretty naive to think that because it hasn't happened before, it won't happen in the future. Who would have thought that terrorists would fly airplanes into buildings until September 11, 2001...

sameoldjeffApril 25, 2007 11:56 PM

why are policeperson's jobs considered dangerous? they wear enough weapons to take out 1/2 a frigging platoon, and treat everyone like they're terrorists. look up the casualty statistic for different jobs. roof for 25 yrs, and tell me cops have it tough.

Gaius ObviousApril 26, 2007 12:07 AM

LandruBek said: "Well Steve, it's probably not reasonable to suspect it, without good evidence. I cannot think of a time when terrorists set off small bombs in the USA just to blow up civilians."

Selective memory failure? Eric Rudolph setting off a series of four bombs to kill civilians, most notably in a crowd at the Altanta Olympics, is the most well-known 'small' bombing. Wikipedia has a list of a dozen or so such incidents.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

Brandioch ConnerApril 26, 2007 12:12 AM

@Tom
"It's pretty naive to think that because it hasn't happened before, it won't happen in the future. Who would have thought that terrorists would fly airplanes into buildings until September 11, 2001..."

Ummmm, everyone who wasn't an idiot.

They had tried a similar thing in France. Look up Air France Flight 8969.

AnonymousApril 26, 2007 12:45 AM

I don't think I can comment on this particular case because the only viewpoint, this story, seems very spinned. I would like to hear the other side.

In general, I think that there are too many of these bomb scares. People need to use their common sense in addition to proper operating procedures.

The real question I have, is can I be a bomb-sniffing human? I would be happy to walk up and prod these "suspicious" packages with a stick as long as the pay was decent, and the odds of any real danger are probably worse than drowning in the bathtub at home.

@TomApril 26, 2007 1:36 AM

@Tom

Nuclear Power plants are designed with 11/9 type of attacks in mind.

Its a well known attack vector.

Quite frankly I don't live my life based on what *could* happen. I use common sence.

Regardless of why someone called, they were wrong. 99.99999999% people put garbage in garbage cans. The guy who called the folks who respodend are idiots.

How may parked cars did everyone report? there could be bombs in them you know. IRA does it all the time.

ThomasApril 26, 2007 1:51 AM

@Ralph
"""how far have you fallen?"""

I don't think you got it.

That semi-literate rant in response to an incident involving a foreign English Professor?

The irony is priceless!

Keep 'em coming Jim, we all need a good laugh now more than ever!

LandruBekApril 26, 2007 3:05 AM

@ Gaius Obvious ("Selective memory failure? Eric Rudolph setting off a series of four bombs to kill civilians . . . at the Altanta Olympics.")

Clarification. What I had in mind were bombers who don't really care about venue, and just want to cause death and general civilian terror -- like what Hamas does. That's what this "bombing" would have been: a bomb in some bin on some anonymous college campus. An unremarkable target like this would be in contrast to a high-profile target like the Olympics, or a consulate. So I daresay Rudolph doesn't compare, at least in my book. When the Olympics, or even the Superbowl, are taking place, yes we should have extra precautions to catch nuts like him.

Basically what I'm saying is, we don't now have Hamas-style bombings in the USA. So the general populace should not be on hair-trigger alert everywhere and always for such attacks.

JeffHApril 26, 2007 3:28 AM

Amazing how many fruitcakes can come out of hiding whenever anyone plays the race or terrorist cards.

The irony is that to a non-US person, all this stupid hysteria just reinforces our opinion that you're all dumb mindless sheep, being led by a racist and ignorant media and government. This is a great shame, as I used to visit the US a lot and was always touched at how intelligent, pleasant and helpful people could be compared to us miserable Europeans. Today, I'd not visit if you paid me.

To those claiming you're at war: You're not at war. Your streets are not bombed out, you don't have snipers shooting your children as they go to school on a daily basis, and you don't have soldiers roaming your streets because at any moment someone might start shooting. Grow up.

On the other hand, you are doing an excellent job of being paranoid, afraid, and doing the terrorists' job for them. Your litigious blame culture has created the problem. A person with responsibility must now overreact because if they don't and they get it wrong, the media claims they are culpable for the result.

Don't get me wrong, the US isn't the only place that is doing this. I live in the UK and we have smatterings of it here. On the whole though, we've lived through the Blitz, the Falklands, the IRA, BSE scares, and the more recent Islamic terrorism and life goes on. It's not a big deal to the nation, only to those directly affected, just like any other tragic aspect of life. There is a difference between heartfelt sympathy for those involved and national overreaction based on those events.

Moshe YudkowskyApril 26, 2007 5:08 AM

Let's see: weird-looking car, weird behavior, out-of-state plates, and (as reported) no parking stickers.

Let's leave aside the professor's rant; he's got the language of professional victimology down pat, along with the amazing ability to read minds and discern motives. Given those two abilities, I suspect that he has the ability to remove inconvenient data from his report as well.

But even taking the report as written, the criticism seems very straightforward: There was no attack at this time, therefore the actions of the person who reported the attack was not justified and neither were the actions of the police. In fact all Americans are evil and stupid, and if only Americans were willing to put up with decades of low-level terrorism like the Europeans have done, life on Earth would be perfect.

I love this sort of absurd post-action analysis. It ignore basic truths of human behavior: people are more sensitive to an attack in the wake of a previous attack, and it takes time for people to learn to balance and adjust to new rules (be they official or societal). And of course anything at all the Americans do provides a platform to call Americans stupid: failing to be suspicious enough to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, or being "too" suspicious afterwards, or failing to be suspicious enough of Cho, or being too suspicious in the post-Cho period while waiting for the inevitable copycat killer.

It's easy enough to understand why Europeans and others take this latter stance; after all, their countries failed to make headway against terrorism for years, and they now view this as the norm and accept it not as a failure but as some sort of proof of superior morality, and will fight viciously against anyone who challenges that norm.

But the bottom line remains: inquisitive individuals who report odd behavior remain the first line of defense against terrorism.

averrosApril 26, 2007 5:17 AM

It does not matter if people are afraid or not, if they are paranoid or not, if there's a racial profiling or not, if poilce is overreacting or not.

It is all totally irrelevant.

What we have here is clear and present case of the tragedy of commons. The protection by police/FBI is commons. People can use it without paying any costs.

So what happens is that they start using a lot more of it that they would if they had to pay for their own security out of their own pockets.

There is no downside - to the caller - for calling a bomb squad every time something vaguely suspicious happens. There is, however, a rather unprobable, but rather significant downside - to him - if there is a real bomb but he didn't call for it.

So we have the commons being overexploited to the point of uselessness.

The only solution to this problem is to eliminate commons. Meaning abolishing public police and switching to the mesh of private commercial protection services. Which would compete by catering to different segments of population with different mixes of protection needs, preferences, and ability to pay.

Any "one size fits all" monopoly on protection inevitably becomes the overexploited and useless commons, in the best case, and turns to the banditry in the worst case.

inventedeyeApril 26, 2007 6:05 AM

The observed pattern of behaviour shown by the professor is not suspicious at all. The act of recycling is entirely legitimate, regardless of the person's ethnicity or the origin of their vehicle. Millions of people do this every day.

There are patterns of behaviour which should raise suspicion, but this is not one of them.

The ROTC guy has demonstrated incompetence in several areas: failure to determine the professor's ethnicity, failure to notice the important identifying stickers on the car, and failure to judge the situation as benign. On what official guidelines or advice did he act?

By acting on his misguided impulse, the ROTC guy is spreading fear and hate.

aApril 26, 2007 6:09 AM

Middle Eastern and the Muslims are the new witches...

I think they should also modify the texts in all these equal opportunity phrases to make it more honest : we don't discriminate anyone based on their ethnic origin, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or political views, unless they are from Middle Eastern origin, or Muslims, or look like they are Middle Eastern, or ...

SalmonApril 26, 2007 6:10 AM

@Ralph and Roy:

"The land of fat and home of the afraid."

"Americans, the war on terror is over. You lost: you're terrified."

Brilliant and succinct.

Steve CApril 26, 2007 8:14 AM

I've just heard Bruce talk on how we often get risk wrong (at a conference in London) and the timing couldn't be more appropriate. The underlying point Bruce made is that people's perception of risk can be improved with better presentation. Perhaps we all need to present risk better and argue for the media to do so as well

sooth_sayerApril 26, 2007 8:20 AM

This is a case of/for/by stupid people. I believe blowing or burning useless poetry should be rewarded.

After all this hoopla, the question are:

was this guy hurt? No,
did the "state" loose time and money? Yes
Will they be more careful in future in doing non-sense like this .. you bet.

Will this guy ever stop thinking about his color .. I doubt it.

I wonder if mentioning ROTC is a political ploy to get them off the college, I bet this story will be oft repeated to argue against letting them on the campus.

philtechApril 26, 2007 8:30 AM

I have to agree that the biggest failure here was the lack of a balanced response by the police. Given that people will call in behavior they consider "suspicious" and are encouraged to do so, police at all levels need to be trained to evaluate such tips. The cops here obviously overreacted. And given their power to detain and arrest, unlike the civilian student, that's a problem.

Having said that, the prof who wrote the article is also overreacting a little. He wasn't detained and was questioned only over a cellphone and was treated with a degree of respect. That was not what I expected from the tone of his article. A modicum of understanding would have helped his article be more balanced.

LiamApril 26, 2007 8:56 AM

.... I'm wondering what lovely site linked to Bruce's blog. There are obviously multiple usernames (not necessarily multiple people) here that haven't been around very long. I figure the "We're in a war on terror" indignation lobe inside their rather overlarge heads would have exploded had they been around more than a couple of days.

RealistApril 26, 2007 10:25 AM

@Tom and @Brandioch Conner
I recall an incident from the 1960's of a hijacked flight circling Detroit with the hijacker threatening to crash the plane into the downtown core if demands weren't met.

@Tom
Go do some reading... The suggestion of flying a plane into the towers was made by one of the captured terrorists back in the early 90's when he was caught after the garage bombings...

C GomezApril 26, 2007 10:47 AM

Looks to me like one person made a very misinformed and possibly negligent or agregrious call to police.

Would you expect police to not respond when they heard a box was left someplace? I actually don't think this story would be any different if the caller left out Middle Eastern and the car and everything else.

The problem is we do so much witch hunting after terrorist incidents that authorities have no choice but to be hyper sensitive. Otherwise you risk being labeled "unprepared", "incompetent", being sued civilly, losing jobs, careers, and livelihoods all because an attack succeeded once...

guvn'rApril 26, 2007 10:55 AM

@sooth_sayer "was this guy hurt? No, [...] Will this guy ever stop thinking about his color .. I doubt it."

That is hurtful. That is the point. He has been made fearful of oppression, he has lost the ability to go about his daily life activities without unwarranted interference - because of his choice of parents.

If a person of WASP or Aryan or Nordic heritage, or even black, had recycled the poetry as described would the police have been called? You can bet the donut budget they would not have been!

Yes we are at war.

For some of us the war is for the basic American values of liberty and freedom from prejudice that are undermined by fear-mongering politicians and the defenders of such idiocy as this scare.

It's not against people who look different or follow different worship customs - it is against those who would war on people because they look different or follow different customs.

It is against the folly and ignorance that leads to this sort of scare.

Unfortunately the war is not going well.

FPApril 26, 2007 10:59 AM

I find it interesting that nobody has yet pointed out the campus police's idiocy to bring in the state police and the bomb squad just because someone reported a box of paper next to a trash can.

There will always be people dialing 911, reporting supposedly suspicious activity because of fear and prejudice. But you expect the police to be smart enough to sort out the spam. In this instance, they were not. Just like in Boston.

Kevin McGrathApril 26, 2007 12:06 PM

When you ride public transportation in New York City you see signs imploring you to report suspicious behavior with the tag line "If you see something, say something." They also have TV and radio ads for the same program. They want you to report anything suspicious to either a transit employee or the police. They have pictures of unattended knapsacks next to an empty subway seat as an example of what you should report.

Well being so conditioned by all this, last summer I noticed what appeared to be a drone aircraft continually circling over my home in Brooklyn so I called my local police station and the officer answering the phone told me, in kind of an annoyed tone of voice, not to worry that they know about the plane??!!

So my point is that maybe the person who reported the innocent behavior of the college professor is just a victim of this ""If you see something, say something." conditioning, that is sure to generate many false positives.

NetLockSmithApril 26, 2007 1:56 PM

Most of the posters here are arguing about (a) whether the professor's actions should be considered suspicious; (b) whether it's about race; (c) the "Global War On Terror" generally. I think a/the major issue is the level of the response, i.e., cancelling classes for the day.

I work in Washington, DC, currently a few blocks from the White House and previously on Capitol Hill. "Suspicious package" alerts happen all the time, and yes, they're almost always a forgotten backpack or briefcase, or a bag or box that's trash. But it's not horribly disruptive because the police don't SHUT DOWN THE CAMPUS/CITY. As Filias Cupio suggests above, they simply clearing the immediate area of bystanders and carefully check it out. Usually the alert is cleared within an hour.

A small box is not going to have explosives capable of destroying everything for blocks around. One suspicious package is not grounds for thinking the whole campus could be under attack. This is a combination of a general terrorism overreaction and CYA to avoid a Virginia Tech situation where the administration is blamed for not shutting down.

Of course, this all creates a massive denial-of-service vulnerability. Not ready for an exam or to turn in an assignment? No longer do you need to call in a bomb threat and risk criminal charges. Just leave a box somewhere, and voila! You get a one-day extension.

byeApril 26, 2007 2:12 PM

I can't believe the racism and fear that has now infested this site.

It used to be great.

If you clean this shit-hole-of-hate up I might be back.

Ex-schneier.com reader.

jhcApril 26, 2007 8:17 PM

Incident 1: An ROTC student over-reacts, calls a cop who over-reacts. Result? 2 out of 300,000,000 people in America over-reacted to an event, but it was all straightened out in the end.

Incident 2: A whole slew of commenters decided that 300,000,000 people are cowering in fear, living in a police state.

Remind me again: WHO is drawing silly conclusions about a large group based on the actions of a few? Jumping to ridiculous conclusions cuts both ways, folks.

And don't bother posting more examples of people over-reacting. It STILL doesn't compare to the number of people who AREN'T over-reacting. Besides, you'll just make me go waste time grabbing counter-examples of people making fools of themselves on partisan weblogs. Really, people, just calm down a bit. Sheesh.

Not a dhimmiApril 26, 2007 9:31 PM

@jhc

The problem is not the sheer numbers of people overreacting it is WHO is overreacting.

It is the people who should know better because it is their job to know better - for example the Boston Police department, the federal government - by and large the ENTIRE TSA program is an over-reaction by the feds. When Joe Blow over-reacts, the cost is insignificant. When a police department brings a lot of traffic in a major US city to a halt, the cost reaches into the millions. When the TSA wastes just a minute of every passenger's time, the cost starts to reach into the billions.


Consider this prof's brush with poor risk evaluation a microcosm of the problem we face in the USA today.

Maggie LeberApril 27, 2007 8:48 AM

Obviously this occurred because the poetry professor "looked Muslim".

But then maybe not:

"Bag of sand spurs evacuation--
'Suspicious package' contained material for student's project"

(see http://tinyurl.com/2evvdh )

Mark J.April 27, 2007 10:22 AM

One has to wonder if there were noticeable differences in the appearance of the box the poetry professor left on the sidewalk and the package containing an actual explosive device found outside an abortion clinic in Austin, TX.

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/headline/...

Of equal interest would be a detailed comparison of how each incident was handled. In the case of the poetry professor, the error may not have been the reporting of his actions, but the handling of the incident after the initial report.

Mark J.April 27, 2007 10:24 AM

I should add here that I would not be at all surprised to learn that the vermin who left the explosive device outside the abortion clinic has a decidedly non-Muslim appearance.

Andrew PurvisOctober 31, 2007 11:30 PM

According to the Oxford American Dictionary:

terrorist
noun
a person who uses terrorism in pursuit of political aims.

terrorism
noun
the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

Doesn't that make Dubya a terrorist, along with anyone else looking to use intimidation to get people to accept a political position? He's been awfully suspicious for a long time, after all. What was he really doing in those years he couldn't find oil in Texas?

JonNovember 1, 2007 6:55 AM

TEH TERRORISTS 4RE C0mIONMG!!!!!!!!!!?!?!??!?!?!?!?!? OMGZZZZZZZZZ TEH L33T H4XORS WILL PWNNNNN J00S. OH NOES!!!! ?!??!?!??! runnnnAWAYYYYYYY.

Mother, should I trust the government?

Fucking fascists.

GigamaxDecember 3, 2008 5:50 PM

The problem is not the sheer numbers of people overreacting it is WHO is overreacting.

It is the people who should know better because it is their job to know better - for example the Boston Police department, the federal government - by and large the ENTIRE TSA program is an over-reaction by the feds. When Joe Blow over-reacts, the cost is insignificant. When a police department brings a lot of traffic in a major US city to a halt, the cost reaches into the millions. When the TSA wastes just a minute of every passenger's time, the cost starts to reach into the billions.


Consider this prof's brush with poor risk evaluation a microcosm of the problem we face in the USA today.

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