Stupidest Terrorist Overreaction Yet?

What? Are the police taking stupid pills?

Two people who sprinkled flour in a parking lot to mark a trail for their offbeat running club inadvertently caused a bioterrorism scare and now face a felony charge.

The competition is fierce, but I think this is a winner.

What bothers me most about the news coverage is that there isn't even a suggestion that the authorities' response might have been out of line.

Mayoral spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the city plans to seek restitution from the Salchows, who are due in court Sept. 14.

"You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know," she said. "It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious. We’re thankful it wasn’t, but there were a lot of resources that went into figuring that out."

Translation: We screwed up, and we want someone to pay for our mistake.

Posted on August 27, 2007 at 2:34 PM • 125 Comments

Comments

Fred PAugust 27, 2007 3:07 PM

Hey, at least in this case, a country unrelated to the scare or the threat wasn't invaded, then occupied for years...

CoquimboAugust 27, 2007 3:18 PM

So...if I understand correctly...anything with a battery, blinking lights, wires, metal, or that consists of a powdery substance is no longer permitted in public places.

God help us.

David in ChicagoAugust 27, 2007 3:20 PM

@Fred:
Too late. Since Canada is the largest exporter of wheat to the U.S., guess what: we're invading Saskatchewan.

docwhatAugust 27, 2007 3:26 PM

“You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know. It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious. We’re thankful it wasn’t, but there were a lot of resources that went into figuring that out.��?
- Mayoral spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga

So....when the construction crews come out to mark gas lines, they call the bomb squad?

How does she function in the real world?

Ciao!

Anton ChuvakinAugust 27, 2007 3:26 PM

Please, please,please make a poll for the "stupidest terror scare."

I think that iPod in toilet is better than this one :-) but let's have a formal vote!

DaveAugust 27, 2007 3:27 PM

We overreacted and we want someone to compensate us for that. Jeez. what total morons.

Ingvar KampradAugust 27, 2007 3:28 PM

They will be sentenced to eighteen months of sleeping on cheap Scandinavian furniture.

Tim VailAugust 27, 2007 3:32 PM

Hmm...I'm thinking if it was a bioterrorism, then I wouldn't be using my hand to sprinkle the powder!

Didn't whoever report it actually see them sprinkle the powder with their hand...if so, it should have easily ruled out bioterrorism.

Joe PattersonAugust 27, 2007 3:34 PM

“You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know,��? she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious. We’re thankful it wasn’t, but there were a lot of resources that went into figuring that out.��?

My god. They've outlawed hopscotch. Is nothing sacred?

Patrick GroteAugust 27, 2007 3:37 PM

"You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know,��? she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious. We’re thankful it wasn’t, but there were a lot of resources that went ito figuring that out."

LOOK OUT FOR THE ARROWS.

Seriously, what has happened to our sense?

PuzzledAugust 27, 2007 3:42 PM

>"You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know,��? she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious."

So... what _does_ the mayor's office think would be more serious than a terrorist sprinkling nefarious powders at Ikea?

Matt from CTAugust 27, 2007 3:49 PM

Be afraid...very afraid.

Imagine what will happen next time you pour the melted ice & soda left over in your fast food cup onto the ground.

Never mind that cars in much of the world are regularly used as bombs. Hey, didn't a Ryder Truck once cost more lives then all the powder incidents put together?

At any rate, here's the statute they were charged under. It was passed 15 November 2001.

Previously only Explosive & Incidenary devices were covered, and those were a Class A Misdeamenor.

I am not a lawyer, but I'm sure thinking that "definition" of hazardous substance is so broad as to render it vague -- it could be *anything*. It would be fun to see what would happen if a top notch law firm got on the case pro-bono.

[i]

Sec. 53a-180aa. Breach of the peace in the first degree: Class D felony. (a) A person is guilty of breach of the peace in the first degree when, with intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, such person places a nonfunctional imitation of an explosive or incendiary device or an imitation of a hazardous substance in a public place or in a place or manner likely to be discovered by another person.

(b) For the purposes of this section: (1) "Hazardous substance" means any physical, chemical, biological or radiological substance or matter which, because of its quantity, concentration or physical, chemical or infectious characteristics, may cause or significantly contribute to an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible or incapacitating reversible illness, or pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health, and (2) "public place" means any area that is used or held out for use by the public whether owned or operated by public or private interests.

(c) Breach of the peace in the first degree is a class D felony.
[/i]

If you want to review the legislative history, all the gory summary is here if you scroll down: http://search.cga.state.ct.us/dtsearch_pub_statutes.html

Matt from CTAugust 27, 2007 4:01 PM

Meant to add to my last post...

1) I can't see how this is reckless. Two guys tossing a fake hand grendade to one another in a crowd, that's reckless because they should know that most people would be concerned it was real.

At best, these people were negligent to think the New Haven PD would respond with paranoia to this.

2) That people saw this being handled without special protective equipment tends to blow a whole in the theory it could be mistaken for something that would hurt life or health;

3) The reason we still have a corrupt Republican Governor (who tried to have 2 Game Wardens sacked when they had the gall to arrest her son for stealing a jetski...)

Is the Democrats ran the nitwit mayor of New Haven against her.

4) And finally, while New Haven is going after people for the high crime of spreading baking flour...

The issue combination City Photo Identification / Debit Cards to illegal aliens to make their life in the shadows just a little bit easier.

Does make you wonder why they don't feel threatened by someone they know is in the country without the proper visas...but put a cup of flour in a parking lot and it's a felony???

GarananaAugust 27, 2007 4:02 PM

The prankster in me is *so* tempted to start leaving harmless things lying around and counting how many of them prompt this sort of idiocy. Green gungy hairgell on the pavement, an old PCI soundcard sticking out of a garbage bag.

Basically, I'd like to see stats on hoax detection rates and compare them to real detection rates.

/sarcasm

Yes, I realise the above is irresponsible. But it would be fun. Please don't hunt me down and arrest me for inciting terrorism.

aliceAugust 27, 2007 4:03 PM

How about banning ALL powdery and liquid substances everywhere in public? Sorry, no more drinking water, no more beers over 3 liquid oz size, nothing with any powder anywhere..(and all electronics and all cables too. And everything that could be used as a potential weapon. )

Seriously, what next? Banning icing sugar in the dishes in the restaurants?

MichaelAugust 27, 2007 4:09 PM

Fond memories... As kids, we played this all the time. One party goes off armed with chalk and sawdust or flour, laying marks, the other party trying to find them.

Apparently you can't play these games any more.

Bruce, "refuse to be terrorized" is over. The terrorists won. It was never so easy to shut down entire cities, airports, shopping malls. Just put down some powder, ring with a bomb threat, forget a bag somewhere, talk in the "wrong" language or even just look weird, and everyone will just panic. Brilliant. The most worrying part about this is that the people who you expect to know what to do and keep their calm are the ones to panic first.

I really hope the Judge will have a hearty laugh and throw out the case when the poor people are sued for compensation for the police operation...

chris rAugust 27, 2007 4:15 PM

My favorite line: "The sprinkled powder forced hundreds to evacuate an IKEA furniture store Thursday." Ah, no. I believe it was the police who forced hundres to evacuate.

This stuff is so arbitrary. Once, before the liquid ban, my wife accidentally dropped a bag with a bottle of wine in it on the floor of the Philadelphia airport. Broken glass and dark liquid pool on the floor at the ticket counter lines, and they wouldn't even send someone to clean it up when we told four desk drones about it. We left and the mess remained.

People in 'official' positions like these have their little channel they run down and they don't deviate from it, because that's what's enforced. This is just more of the same.

Chad Z. Hower aka KudzuAugust 27, 2007 4:40 PM

Call out the HazMat team! Call for Flour control! Add it to controlled substances act! 3 day waiting period on all bread purchases!

FWIW - HHH (Hash House Harriers) is a HUGE organization. This is really going to piss off a huge amount of people and create a huge backlash. Fortunately as a member, but not living in the US, flour (And coloured chalk is used in some countries, imagine what a scare that would cause. COLOURED POWDER. OMG!!!!!) is still legal here. Of course many other things are legal here that are not in the US too. :)

AnonymousAugust 27, 2007 4:52 PM

Well, flour *is* an explosive under the right circumstances... though these were hardly it.

PeterAugust 27, 2007 5:05 PM

Well the thing I find funny here is that the Hash is actually a fairly established thing with military roots. If I remember right, it started in Malaysia in the '30s amongst the British officers. Here in the states, it's actually fairly popular amongst the military set (at least, the group my sister and brother-in-law were in was packed to the gills with marines and federal workers). This bit with the Xs and arrows done in flour is the traditional method for them to lay out their routes and has been done for years. Here's a URL to the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hash_House_Harriers.

For what it's worth, I'm not in the Hash myself.

AnonymousAugust 27, 2007 5:09 PM

Isn't anyone here aware that baking flour is highly flammable? If they had set a match to that stuff it could have created a fireball possibly several inches in diameter, frightening small children and animals, causing minor burns, or even singeing the paint on cars. Just think of the loss of resale value!

AnnonymousAugust 27, 2007 5:11 PM

The mayor's spokensperson's e-mail is:
jmayorga@newhavenct.net

Drop her a note (be civil, please!) and tell her how this makes New Haven look ridiculous.

averyAugust 27, 2007 5:14 PM

What I find interesting is that, with the exception of Harvey's Casino (and he was more of an extortionist with a bomb), every bombing I can think of involved something that looked as ordinary as the bomber could make it. Yet when the official apologist explains the situation they always cite the out of place-ness of whatever it is they're decending into hand-waving freakoutery over as their principal concern.

AnnonymousAugust 27, 2007 5:16 PM

The mayor's e-mail address (from the city's website) is:
MayorDeStefano@newhavenct.net

Please remember to be civil.

Petréa MitchellAugust 27, 2007 5:20 PM

Are you taking nominations for worst recent reaction? I think this deserves at least an honorable mention. (Warning: you may be forced to go through a stupid demographic info-collecting page.)

http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/margie_boule/index.ssf?/base/living/1187812509231740.xml&coll=7

Summary: Parents of autistic guy warn ticket agent that their son is autistic before he gets on his flight. Other passengers see a dark-skinned man acting oddly and freak out. Autistic guy is deemed too dangerous to remain on that flight, but instead gets put on another flight and routed through several intermediate cities. Huh?

Dom De VittoAugust 27, 2007 5:45 PM

@Joe
The phrases :
"They've outlawed hopscotch." and
"They banned hotscotch."

don't bring up any results on Google.

Wow.

I feel sorry for these guys because the system is going to screw them, because it's not got the balls to tell the bureaucrats they are wrong.

In jail, these guys had better tell the other inmates that they were planning to kill thousands with deadly powder - otherwise they'll get creamed :-(

bzelbobAugust 27, 2007 6:20 PM

From the Article:

"We’re thankful it wasn’t, but there were a lot of resources that went into figuring that out
...
...
Daniel Salchow biked back to IKEA when he heard there was a problem and told officers the powder was just harmless flour, which he said he and his sister have sprinkled everywhere from New York to California without incident."


What? Exactly what "resources" were used? And what high priority crimes were those resources pulled off of?

Thank goodness nothing else important was happening that would prevent them from diverting half their police force.

PoPoAugust 27, 2007 6:29 PM

I work for law enforcement. One of our boys would have laughed and driven off if he saw this crap. Maybe the arrows were Arabic cryptic writings? Oohhh....maybe Farsi? Everyone is way too into making a name for themselves as terrorist hunters. How about serving the hundreds of outstanding warrants in your community, Mayor DeStefano?

GeorgeAugust 27, 2007 6:31 PM

I ran with the hashers in Washington DC. I saw men in protective suits spraying our chalk with some kind of liquid, presumably bleach. One time in 2001, helicopters followed our trail. Eventually we discovered that tinting the flour with colored chalk solved the problem: apparently nobody suspects Anthrax can be blue or pink.

AnonymousAugust 27, 2007 6:53 PM

Good thing it was not Gold Bond power. We would all be covered with power in public.

Mace MonetaAugust 27, 2007 7:34 PM

The real problem here is an epidemic of stupid. How many people do you know that have become strangely brain dead in the last 6 years?

Luke MAugust 27, 2007 7:35 PM

What we really need - perhaps the only way we will cure the world of its current ridiculous terrorism paranoia - is for some very brave (stupid?) people to just *keep* doing this. Pick an important, busy airport, and have someone sprinkle flour in it once a week (or even once a day!) for a month. The first one or two incidents may result in evacuations and arrests, but the authorities are not going to evacuate a major international airport once a week as a matter of routine. The inconvenience and the cost are too great. Eventually they will be *forced* to stop and think before reacting to things like this.

Unfortunately, this plan requires that a handful of people do have their lives ruined by the initial overreactions.

sooth_sayerAugust 27, 2007 7:37 PM


>> you never know,��? she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious.....

WOW .. pray tell what' more serious .. devil attacking ..martians setting up the bakery ..
dumb f**ks like this should be shot immediately.

Tamzen CannoyAugust 27, 2007 7:50 PM

In most places the Hasher memebership usually includes lots of lawyers and judges and diplomats and the like. Hopefully this is the case here too and these folks will get some free help. Even better would be judges that told the mayor what a stupid thing this was to do, in person over their golf game or cards or something.

DanAugust 27, 2007 7:51 PM

Hah, I just googled the mayoral spokesperson (Jessica Mayorga) and apparently she was a former Miss Cuba. That might explain the very intelligent reaction she had to chalk, flour and arrows...

I was looking for an email so I could let them know how silly I thought they were being.

SteveAugust 27, 2007 8:37 PM

I hate to be the odd man out here but according to the New York Times, there have been previous incidents of this sort

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/25/nyregion/25beer.html?ref=nyregion

so they should have been aware of the potential for a scare.

And, in defense of the public officials, I have to say that once something of this nature is reported, as Assistant Fire Chief Ralph Black Jr. put it in the New Haven Register's report

http://www.nhregister.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=18744154&BRD=1281&PAG=461&dept_id=566835&rfi=6

"We always go on the assumption that it is something".

What would you have them do, shrug it off?

David CAugust 27, 2007 9:02 PM

Ah Ha! Maybe we are missing the sub-plot here. It is 'health terrorism' they are freaking about in Conn.!

The flour was white processed flour and not wholemeal organic!

It would really bung up your insides man!

THEY WERE RIGHT TO OVER-REACT!!

David CAugust 27, 2007 9:11 PM

On the serious side of this issue - if there is one!- we (in Barbados) often set such flour running trails and have been met by some weird reactions.

A little old lady came running after us 3 weeks ago, nearly crying as she thought we had performed Obeia on her house (a type of black magic).

Another time I saw a rasta guy furtively, and somewhat hopefully dip his finger in the pile of white powder and taste it. He looked disappointed!

It takes all sorts to make a world, but we all get along quite well if we use common sense and learn how to communicate effectively. Unfortunately the security services need some lessons.

dougieAugust 27, 2007 9:29 PM

This could be interesting. I'm certain there's more than a few lawyers in the US that are Hashers and will probably rally to the cause.

Stefan WagnerAugust 27, 2007 9:49 PM

@Coquimbo: "So...if I understand correctly...anything with a battery, blinking lights, wires, metal, or that consists of a powdery substance is no longer permitted in public places."

Liquids - you missed liquids.
Dangerous liquids.

KanlyAugust 27, 2007 9:55 PM

This problem has been discussed before inside the Bruce Blogarena. How do we encourage law enforcement/politicians to act smart and not dumb? Like you said, even the dumbass media reports this stupidity with the straight face.

Idea: The Daily Show hit on a nice idea by reporting stupidity in the politics of mocking it. Maybe we need a serialized Security version of The Daily Show. Cheap Distribution Vector: YouTube.

Mark J.August 27, 2007 9:55 PM

Yikes. When we were kids we'd wrap up a half dozen firecrackers in a paper towel and sneak up to the security guard's shack at the local industrial park. We'd tack the paper towel/firecracker roll to the side of his shack and light it. About the time he saw the flame and came outside, the firecrackers would go off. By that time we'd be way off in the woods laughing our butts off. These days he would be hailed as a hero for shooting us all.

I know, I know, it was dumb. But we were dumb kids having fun.

This latest "scare" just embarrasses me once again for being a New Englander.

KenAugust 27, 2007 9:57 PM

While the police and fire departments should respond to an incident like this, the normal information gathering\investigation\intelligence process would have shown the powder to be harmless.

The reaction reminds me of the end of the movie "National Treasure" where the cop says, "somebody's got to go to jail". After creating a mess by the over-reaction, the police blame it on the runners.

BTW, I'm a firefighter (25 years) and a certified hazardous materials technician. A vast majority of public safety agencies would have cleared this up in a few minutes with no evacuations, media coverage, or arrests.

Brandioch ConnerAugust 27, 2007 11:23 PM

Something to consider.

How many Ikea employees saw this same activity and did NOT report it to the cops?

It only takes one nutcase to start the ball rolling.

Then it's up the cops on whether to panic and CYA or to sensibly evaluate the situation.

And so on all the way up the chain.

Come on. Did anyone THINK about this? Do we actually believe that "terrorists" have access to 5 pounds of anthrax (the weight of a bag of flour here)? Or that they'd use that instead of more traditional items such as ... guns and bombs?

On the face of it, it looks like one of the terrorist plots that have been described here. Attack a shopping mall because they're too difficult to defend.

The problem is that no one after the initial report acted intelligently. If it is UNLIKELY that a terrorist would have the resources to carry out that attack, then BEHAVE as if it were a non-threatening situation.

99.999% of the time you will be right.

The other 0.001% of the time you will be too late to do anything anyway.

bad JimAugust 28, 2007 12:32 AM

I hesitate to suggest this, but what if pranksters in various cities simultaneously set up blinking things, each protected by a circle of white powder and bearing a placard stating "This is not a bomb and the powder is not anthrax"?

Isn't there some way we could laugh this sort of fear away?

BJRAugust 28, 2007 12:42 AM

Based on the facts as stated in the article, there's virtually *no* way the prosecutors will be able to prove intent. I'm not up to date on the US definition of "recklessness" in the context of a criminal charge, but as far as I know you need to prove that the accused (1) saw a risk and (2) took the chance anyway. "Not in my wildest dreams did I ever anticipate anything like that" doesn't exactly sound like someone who anticipated this reaction -- nor should they have anticipated it. Even if the standard is simple negligence, I seriously doubt a court would find that a reasonable person would have foreseen their actions causing "inconvenience or alarm".

So in summary, and to add my voice to the din: This is retarded.

Toby StevensAugust 28, 2007 1:24 AM

The worldwide sport of Hashing was invented in Malaysia by bored businessmen who missed hunting and needed some exercise. Although clearly the mayor's office is unaware of that 'rest of world' concept.

Anyway, think about it: 'Hash', 'running' - hey, maybe they could be charged under a narcotics act instead?

DirkAugust 28, 2007 1:50 AM

www.boomershoot.org

“If it ever becomes necessary to start shooting tyrants and “jack booted thugs“ in our country I want as many people on my side as possible. And I want them to have the equipment and the skills to be able to hit head and chest sized objects many hundreds of yards away.��?

averrosAugust 28, 2007 2:34 AM

Well... there's only one candidate in the present presidential race who promised to do something which will have a chance of mitigating this wave of paranoia and stupidity - he promises to disband DoHS.

If you're no longer amuzed by the fascist crap going on, vote for him. Or get out your trusty rifle and go shoot some politicos. Just sitting there waiting to be herded like dumb sheep for, er, processing, is even more stupid than bitching about the "morons" who see the "terrists" under every bed. They are not morons, they are neo-fascists.

Hint: terrorist mania was the fisrt step in the Hitler's plan to take over. Similarly, Stalin's terror started with paranoia about "shpiony i vrediteli" (spies and saboteurs - you see, back then, the "terror" was something which was officially a Good Thing To Do).

So, please, get your asses up and DO something about kicking the fascist establishment out.

ForRealAugust 28, 2007 3:34 AM

@averros
You go a little too far, for now. Groups of citizens meeting officials, appointed and elected, may be advised to have a rope handy, at least to mention in passing. This is especially relevant when issues such as foreclosure eviction come up.

Nick LancasterAugust 28, 2007 4:54 AM


God forbid someone should sprinkle baking powder (which reacts with water) to create a mysterious foaming mass on the sidewalk.

If it were anthrax, it wouldn't be clumped in lines and arrows, would it? It has to disperse and go airborne, right?

On a side note, the authorities in the Bay Area are complaining that cell phone users are overtaxing the 911 system, as hundreds of calls will come in about the same accident as people drive past. So we go from 'report anything strange' to 'don't bother us, we're busy!'

GrainneAugust 28, 2007 5:27 AM

>"You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know,��? she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious."

..well arrows do have pointy corners..

Jan Egil KristiansenAugust 28, 2007 5:48 AM

This is not about powder or wires.

It's about being unususal in any sense. You can't be blamed for ignoring normal activity, so you report only unusual activity. Any unusual activity, just to be safe. E.g. wearing a tie does not make you a security threat. But - if you were the only person in the world to wear a tie, I bet you could not get past airport security.

Nick LancasterAugust 28, 2007 6:05 AM

Why is what is essentially a chalk arrow 'unusual' activity? Should we take measures to make sure terrorists don't tamper with the groundskeeping supplies during football and baseball season?

It's more like we've willingly chosen fear over rational thought; I can't imagine that drawing lines with flour would qualify as 'unusual' absent the exaggerated spectre of terrorism.

What's next, arresting a teenager for egging a house?

MartinAugust 28, 2007 6:17 AM

There were two errors committed here:

1) The initial over-reaction: evacuating the store and calling the police.

2) Prosecuting the Salchows, even though David Salchow returned to the store to explain what happened as soon as he heard there was a problem

Comments seem to focus on the first error. OK it was an over-reaction, but it was an error made in the heat of the moment (and as Bruce has pointed out, lots of other people have over-reacted in similar ways). However this was just a case of human error and is forgivable.

I think the second error is much more serious. Instead of admitting they made a mistake (and thus being able to learn from the mistake) the city's officials have decided to "seek restitution" [sic] from an innocent individual. Why don't they just send David Salchow straight to Guantanamo Bay? That would avoid the inconvenience of a trial.

bobAugust 28, 2007 6:45 AM

@Mace Moneta: Its AIDS - Acquired Intelligence Deficiency Syndrome - you get it from being exposed to television.

But actually, it boils down to this: as long as millions of lawyers make trillions of dollars in the US from suing everyone for everything no matter how stupid, and it costs a fortune even to successfully defend yourself from one of these, then everyone has to take the nth degree of caution or be bankrupted.

DanCAugust 28, 2007 7:05 AM

This could have been worse. They could have called Boston for help and had the whole parking lot blown up.

KiloAugust 28, 2007 7:13 AM

“You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know,��? she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious. "

Something more serious than a terrorist eh. A terrorist without a sense of humour ?
2 terrorists ?

Daniel HaranAugust 28, 2007 7:49 AM

Wait... they had powder they suspected was anthrax sprayed outside of buildings, and they 'evacuated' people inside the buildings to the outside where they were at more risk of breathing it? One more layer of dumbass

ZaneAugust 28, 2007 8:02 AM

If anyone knows how I could contribute to a defense fund, please let me know.

And to those who defend the authorities, give me a break. No one is suggesting that anyone ignore reports of suspicious activity. The answer, however, is simple: go over to the people and ask them what they're doing.

C GomezAugust 28, 2007 8:47 AM

This is pretty bad.

I can't even use the usual "free police agencies from being sued for NOT responding to every cry of 'wolf'" defense.

In some cases, you can understand the police overreacting. If you're a chief of police, is it really worth your career to not react to every bogus call? You only have to be wrong once to lose everything you've ever trained for.

If we didn't conduct witch hunts after real incidents, then we wouldn't have to endure endless CYA tactics by law enforcement.

However, there is no crime here. Nothing that was done is illegal, and there was no mens rea, or intent to do anything wrong. No court in the world should be able to convict them of doing anything without that intent.

Nick LancasterAugust 28, 2007 8:53 AM

Zane:

Exactly. Why does sprinkling a white powder and drawing chalk arrows become a suspicious activity? How would it have been regarded before 9/11, and what has changed about our assumptions since then?

This is like forwarding a chain-letter warning off the internet; the intent is perhaps genuine - we want to inform a friend or relative about something serious - but the threat is often a falsehood designed to play off our fears ... and is constantly re-packaged. (And we probably all know someone who either forwards these things to us for the umpteenth time, or asks 'Is this real?')

Our response to potential terrorist threats has to be better than the knee-jerk response we have to anonymous internet hoaxes.

AnonymousAugust 28, 2007 9:17 AM

“You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know,��? she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious."

Ummmmm, what could be more serious than a terra attack?

And while I agree the authorities overreacted, just like in Boston, using flour seems unnecessary, as chalk should have been enough.

Regardless, why can't the police admit they made the wrong decision? It really demonstrates a level of arrogance that reeks like bacon.

RedwretchAugust 28, 2007 9:27 AM

“You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know,��? she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious."

Ummmmm, what could be more serious than a terra attack?

And while I agree the authorities overreacted, just like in Boston, using flour seems unnecessary. What can they really charge them with, anyway, baking offenses? There was no bad intent here.

Regardless, why can't the police admit they made the wrong decision? It really demonstrates a level of arrogance that reeks like bacon.

DaedalaAugust 28, 2007 9:35 AM

You know, I have no problem with the customer or the Ikea employee. Kinda silly, sure, but whatever; people get confused and make stupid mistakes all the time. Just because I've heard of hashing before (if only I drank!) doesn't mean everyone has. The system is supposed to be resilient enough to handle false alarms.

The city and the police, however, have a serious, serious problem.

BillAugust 28, 2007 9:36 AM

This is "protect your arse" syndrome. There's no incentive for anyone to use common sense, and every incentive not too. You won't get in trouble if you follow the procedures - even if it means overreacting. It's worse when you have a culture of micromanagement - then the people on the ground are not allowed, or too afraid, to make a decision.

UNTERAugust 28, 2007 10:04 AM

It's exactly CYA. And the only solution? That people get canned, just as they do for under-reacting (or should!)

Life is tough. You screw up by over-reacting - get another job. You screw up by under-reacting - get another job. Quit your whining and take responsibility, or have it forced on you. And it's time for the voters to stop cutting these fools slack - if the elected officials won't sack their incompetent underlings, time for them to get sacked to!

It's not like these folks are elementary school drop-outs trying to make a living cutting chicken on an assembly line. If they can't do a better job than those people, then we should replace them - give the assembly line workers a chance.

Matt from CTAugust 28, 2007 10:07 AM

>Ummmmm, what could be more serious
>than a terra attack?

It's New Haven.

The politicos there worry about two things:

1) Immigration & Customs Enforcement removing illegal aliens from the voter rolls;

2) The wire taps the FBI have on every major politician in the state.

MeAugust 28, 2007 11:04 AM

Of course, when some terrorists do come up with a plot to kill millions of people and they deploy it using some very innocuous means and manage to succeed because the police didn't want to "over react" you will be the very first "security expert" to point out how they need to take every threat seriously, no matter how innocuous.

You should just post one line to your blog. Dear police, damned if you do and damned if you don't.

goAugust 28, 2007 11:12 AM

you guys are the same people that would be the first to complain "the authorities didn't act!" if the powder HAD been something lethal.

Nick LancasterAugust 28, 2007 11:26 AM

Me & Go:

Your premise is based on 'what if it WAS a real threat?'

So far, there have been no terrorist attacks using lite-brites OR liberal sprinkling of flour inside a parking lot. We've decades of suicide bombers in the Middle East, and none of them have ever tried those approaches. Neither have any of the insurgents deploying IEDs in Iraq.

If you see Bruce as calling for 'no reaction,' you're not paying attention. He's calling for an informed reaction, as well as accountability.

"It could have been terrorism or something worse," should be readily apparent as spin control. I'd think a terrorist would get better mileage out of standing atop a hill on a windy day, rather than reproducing the Nazca Lines in an IKEA parking lot.

Odds are, if there ever is another terrorist attack, the mistake or bit of social engineering that got it past our radar won't be the antics of a running club, or guerilla art.

I, for one, would prefer to view a bag of flour as a bag of flour, and a chalk arrow as nothing more than a chalk arrow.

AceAugust 28, 2007 11:33 AM

Poor Hash runners. Leave it to our government to seek restitiution for their overreaction. ON ON!

DarrylAugust 28, 2007 12:02 PM

Laugh out loud. Gee kids where should we go for vacation this year? USA? No thanks. And no I am not buying a Sharp TV or a GM car either.

Hugh KennedyAugust 28, 2007 12:38 PM

I am a hasher, as members of the Hash House Harriers refer to themselves, I run with such groups and have done so for around twenty years in over a dozen countries. It is a great way to meet people outside work when you are just visiting in a foreign country. I have met fellow hashers from the police forces, the US military, even the US Secret Service. I have also known senior bankers, pilots, diplomats and even an IMF representative that go to the hash. I refuse to believe that people in the law enforcement can't spend a few minutes checking to determine there was nothing to be afraid of. Indeed, as a social running club, the clubs tend to run on a regular basis and are far from secretive, sometimes advertising on local radio.

Directly after the anthrax incidents, use of flour was suspended around the world. However that was a very long time ago and probably not even linked to international terrorism. Flour tends to disappear much faster than chalk so is much preferred as a trail marking material in many places.

Carlos GomezAugust 28, 2007 12:53 PM

That the police cam and investigated the incident is no big deal. I would be very concerned if the police did not take a terrorist threat seriously. But once it was established that there was no threat, trying to prosecute them for a recreational activity that was misinterpreted as terrorist threat is simply uncalled for.

WolfgerAugust 28, 2007 1:31 PM

"I would be very concerned if the police did not take a terrorist threat seriously."

Me too. But this is obviously NOT a terrorist threat. No more so than Lite Brites, or hailing a taxi cab. In fact, I'm willing to bet terrorists actually do hail taxis, so this particular event is even less likely to be a terrorist threat than calling a cab is. Please, Carlos, let's have a little perspective here. White powder, chalk lines, and arrows are not terrorist tools. Anbody who thinks they are needs to be just a little less hysterical.

kris in canadaAugust 28, 2007 3:15 PM

@David in Chicago:

don't dismiss that thought out of hand. after all, canada is also the largest exporter of oil to the united states. (though even i have to admit that the recent substantial dip in wheat production may still provide good cover for an oil war)

T. RuthAugust 28, 2007 3:38 PM

The USA has become a total pussy/ wuss country!
You shit yourselves over flour!

ROTFLMAO!!!

mozAugust 28, 2007 4:25 PM

I agree with Martin and Bill; the only serious fact is that the officials think they can get away with charging the people and we should try to put some money into the legal process to combat this. Just funding defenses doesn't really help. The officials don't see any problem. What we really need is lawsuits against the officials that overreact. Anybody willing to set up a fund for that?

MarkAugust 28, 2007 5:20 PM

You know...I think that we might be being a bit unfair to the mayor here, simply because the Bush Administration and Boston and some other locales have terribly abused the "terrorist" justification.

Say you go out into the parking lot of a store and you see a sizable trail of powder. What would your first thought be? Mine would be that there's probably a truck somewhere that was in the parking lot with a load of chemicals in powdered form leaking.

The police get called -- they or the fire department are probably the most reasonable city service to notify. They see the trail, maybe a chemical leak. Their job is to keep people safe. If they can't find whoever is leaking whatever it is (and it sounds like it took until things were a real circus for the Harriers to realize that there was a pretty major misunderstanding), the first thing to do is make sure that it doesn't hurt anyone and find out what it is so that it can be cleaned up. There are some pretty unpleasant industrial chemicals that can be in powder form -- it doesn't have to be concerns about anthrax or intentional dispersal.

Now, I think that it would have made a lot more sense to just block off the area around the spill until they know what it is and just let people keep shopping, maybe sweep some of it to the side to let people through, but maybe it spanned the whole parking lot -- I don't know.

Evacuating the store seems like overkill, but it's not completely in the realm of insanity, either -- I doubt that the local police officers spend a lot of time dealing with industrial chemical spills, and they'd want to err on the side of caution.

Prosecution of the individuals involved also seems regrettable -- but I also don't know what I'd do otherwise. At the very least, it has to be treated as a chemical spill, and the fire department has to be dispatched to deal with it and police to keep people out of the substance. Clearly, this can tie up a lot of emergency workers, so it's an action that perhaps shouldn't be allowed (OTOH, I can understand the Harriers not wanting the hassle of dropping the cops a note ahead of time -- besides, if it's easier for some official to just say 'no' than to allow it, there's probably some chance that they'll do so). I don't have a great solution to deal with this. I do think that at the worst they should be given a small fine and be asked to drop the PD a note ahead of time next time they're doing a race.

When the mayor was justifying it, she chose the scariest thing she could think of -- terrorists dumping anthrax. Kind of lame, yes, but not unheard of either.

Basically, I think I would have acted differently at each of these stages, but none of the actions are completely insane, either.

In Boston, the devices were very, very unlikely to be any kind of bomb. The huge and abrupt deployment of police was also to a degree that I think was overkill. That was just ridiculous. In the Bush Administration's case, terrorism has been used to justify an awful lot of things that I think are pretty absurd. However, let's not pin all the pent-up upset over Boston and Bush on the New Haven folks. This situation certainly could have been handled better, but it also isn't, IMHO, nearly as absurd as the "iPod toilet" or Mooninite situations. There's a reasonable non-terrorist justification for what happened here -- it's just that the mayor rather unfortunately chose to cover her rear end by using the term "terrorism".

Todd KnarrAugust 28, 2007 5:28 PM

Actually, Mark, my first thought would be that someone's got a bag of cement mix, flour or a load of just plain dirt leaking. If there's a chemical smell to it, THEN I might be worried, but most likely case is it's one of any number of innocuous powders people cart around on a daily basis.

Sorry, but I decline to go through my day in a state of terror because of all the little things that're perfectly harmless but that I don't run into often.

MarkAugust 28, 2007 6:16 PM

Todd,

Okay, it's fair enough to state that there are safe alternatives that the powder could be. My point is just that there are far-more-likely-than-terrorism-yet-still-dangerous explanations.

Much of my irritation over the "terrorism" justification derives from the fact that terrorism is an incredibly unlikely source of unexpected packages showing up, big question mark blocks being hung around towns, or blinking LED signs flicking people off. This, I think, is the same point that Bruce has been addressing -- we've been doing a terrible job of keeping the risks in perspective when deciding how to allocate resources and in what assumptions to make.

I don't know what the rate of spills of chemicals is, but I'm confident in saying that it's a much more likely source of a line of powder running through a parking lot than terrorism.

Now, it may be that the actions taken *still* were out of wack with the probability of danger and the potential harm if the powder was harmful. Fair enough -- I've no real idea what the numbers are like for spills. However, I want to point out that the assumption of terrorism, which *is* generally unreasonable, isn't really fair grounds to go after New Haven this time. It's not unreasonable for them to be careful with a substance for other, much more plausible reasons.

"If there's a chemical smell to it, THEN I might be worried"

I agreed with much of the rest of your post, but not this. I would guess that many powders that aren't very good for people don't have a smell that you could consider chemical (What is a chemical smell, anyway? Vinegar?) I believe that there are a number of insecticides stored in powder form that are harmful to people in high concentration -- the smell of organophosphates can range from odorless to rather pleasant. Heck, even poisons that *would* be intentionally used against other people (http://www.slate.com/id/2148198/) can smell nice.

AnonymousAugust 28, 2007 7:12 PM

Where'd New Haven managed to recruit that many Barney Fifes? From the LAPD?

SumDumGuyAugust 28, 2007 7:34 PM

Isn't a Yalie in the Oval Office today? I think you've identified the common denominator here.

jdAugust 28, 2007 7:43 PM

THE IDIOT THAT HAD THE IKEA STORE EVACUATED SHOULD BE FIRED.

ANYTHING UNUSUAL CAN ALWAYS BE TURNED ON ITS HEAD TO SCARE PEOPLE.

THE AUTHORITIES HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO FILTER REAL THREATS VS. NON-THREATS. THE PERSON THAT DID THIS IS A NUT, AND THE FACT HE WAS ABLE TO DO IT, MEANS THAT THE PEOPLE AT THE TOP ARE NUTS, AND EVERYONE BELOW IS A NUT.

GOD HELP THESE PEOPLE THAT DREW THOSE LINES. THERE IS NO SAVING THEM. ONCE THE IDIOCY IS ACCEPTED, THE CONCLUSION IS TO PUT THEM IN JAIL. MY GOD, WHAT A SHAME.

edgeAugust 28, 2007 8:52 PM

maybe they should have spent the 50g ahead of time on some fucking police training, is everyone one the force from mayberry?

pdAugust 28, 2007 10:23 PM

Hey people, it's common knowledge that Martians and aliens use flour as bait for humans, that they then suck their brains out creating more Republicans in an attempt to destroy the world. This one was a no-brainer (no pun intended) - good work out there folks. .

JRAugust 28, 2007 10:37 PM

wow - what a bunch of pompous dicks you guys are! you people are the types that sit at your glowing computers getting mad at how "stupid" everyone is...meanwhile, if you were actually confronted by anyone face to face...you would run away cowering.

In a country of 300+ million people there will be a few overreactions every so often. It isn't the end of western civilization, you smelly trolls. Seriously, get over yourselves -- spend a few hours helping the homeless instead of getting worked up over stuff like this.

SockmanAugust 28, 2007 10:41 PM

It just goes to show you that the system is rigged. How can absolute idiots be freely elected to high office and make such absurd laws?

Short answer, they can't. The offices are almost impossible to win honestly. They are in effect for sale to a tiny group. We are feeling the curse of inherited wealth.

Brandioch ConnerAugust 28, 2007 10:52 PM

@Mark
"When the mayor was justifying it, she chose the scariest thing she could think of -- terrorists dumping anthrax. Kind of lame, yes, but not unheard of either."

Do you have any links to that? Because I don't recall any incidents of terrorists "dumping anthrax". All I do recall is them mailing it.

Seriously, do terrorists have access to that much anthrax?

"Basically, I think I would have acted differently at each of these stages, but none of the actions are completely insane, either."

"Insane"? As in dementia or what? That was 100% CYA. Beyond stupid CYA.

"Say you go out into the parking lot of a store and you see a sizable trail of powder. What would your first thought be? Mine would be that there's probably a truck somewhere that was in the parking lot with a load of chemicals in powdered form leaking."

Why would you think that? Does it happen often?

Personally, my first thought would be "someone's dumping something here".

And when I saw the arrows I'd think "someone's marking something here".

I see that ALL THE TIME in Seattle. The utility companies paint on the street and the grass and the dirt. People draw on the sidewalks.

If there was a line of white power across the street, I'd step over it and not even think that I might be risking my life.

Why?

Because 99.999% of the time it will be completely harmless. Deal with the Reality. Not your fantasies.

Rich WilsonAugust 29, 2007 12:10 AM

@JR

Don't worry JR. When you're facing a ridiculous felony charge, we'll stick up for you too. That's just the kind of smelly trolls we are.

DigitalCommandoAugust 29, 2007 12:59 AM

Good thing Cheech & Chong wasn't there, they would have snorted up all the cop's evidence!

JimAugust 29, 2007 1:02 AM

The terror threat has been risen (get it "risen") to Brown Loaf. This means that all baking activity must be halted at once. In the event of an actual terror event, the level will rise again to Black Loaf. At this level, everyone owning a tandoor will be sent to Cuba.

...and Hansel and Gretel were afraid of the witch! They probably made her into a witch with their bio-hazardous moldy bread droppings. The little terrorists! Verboten!

rmuserAugust 29, 2007 2:42 AM

Where on earth would anyone get that much anthrax? The only thing scary about this is the horrible confluence of stupidity, and what it means for our future.

Nick LancasterAugust 29, 2007 3:41 AM

JR:

Confronted by whom? A guy in jogging shorts sprinkling flour and marking chalk arrows?

The 'I'm gonna be a hero and stop the bad guys' mentality is almost as foolish as the clown-car terrorism scare routine.

Also, as someone who has done volunteer work, you owe me (and probably a few others) an apology. Never assume we're a bunch of clueless nerds in an ivory tower.

AnonymousAugust 29, 2007 8:48 AM

"2) The wire taps the FBI have on every major politician in the state." (Matt from CT)

So you're telling us that they have taped Lieberman's late night phones sex calls to Bush? And he still believes that Bush will leave Laura for him?

Always a sucker, that Lieberman.

H4August 29, 2007 11:20 AM

I think the city should be paying the hash for giving them a great test scenario.
That kind of training is priceless.

ElmerSAugust 29, 2007 12:49 PM

What use is it to send email to the New Haven mayor's office? If you aren't a New Haven voter they won't care what you think. Obviously the stupidity of their police and mayor puts New Haven on our list of places to avoid, but that won't make much difference either ... it's not like New Haven is much of a tourist destination. So they can become known as the stupidest city officials in the world and it still won't affect their Chamber of Commerce.

But IKEA seems to be complicit in the over-reaction and in the city's attempts to blame others for their stupidity ... and also in the city's attempts to "seek restitution" from these innocent people.

And IKEA is almost as international as the HHH. So, if we're sending letters of concern maybe they should go to the local IKEA, not just a hicksville mayor who won't care about far-away opinions.

An HHH protest to IKEA, anyone? Maybe even an "ON ON" boycott? Or maybe the opposite ... run your next hash through your local IKEA to make sure every IKEA in the world gets to know the Hash.

HjHAugust 29, 2007 1:59 PM

“It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious. We’re thankful it wasn’t, but there were a lot of resources that went into figuring that out.��?

This comment reminds me of a comment made by the police PR person regarding the shooting of the Brazilian national in the British subway. He stated something along the lines of, "He wasn't a terror threat and wasn't going to blow up the train, but imagine if he was and what he could have done."

Along those lines, they should shoot everyone who they have under surveillance for suspected terror acts.

This terror thing has gone too far. Is it really the terrorists or the gov't/media that's causing the most terror.

HjH

cdmillerAugust 29, 2007 5:16 PM

@JR,

Oohh! I can help feed the homeless by leaving leaky bags of flour at the mission doorstep! :)

JohnAugust 30, 2007 10:09 AM

Although it appears that the authorities may have overreacted, I don't think the whole story has been reported. While many media outlets simply cut-and-pasted the news report, a report by WFSB in Connecticut:

http://www.wfsb.com/news/13960602/detail.html?rss=hart&psp=news

states that powder was found around the entrance and scattered throughout the store. Powder was also found at a nearby Bank of America branch.

Perhaps the reaction wasn't so out of line, and perhaps more journalists should do some actual investigation.

Alexandre CARMEL-VEILLEUXAugust 30, 2007 2:32 PM

Wow, Hash House Harriers are terrorists and not just a drinking club with a running problem. Who'd have thunk?

On On!

kehrsamAugust 30, 2007 3:52 PM

If people can just go around spreading flour and marking arrows in chalk, the terrorists have won. As for the something "worse than terrorists" need I remind you that Miskatonic U is nearby.

hububAugust 31, 2007 12:45 PM

It's your fault. It's your fault for voting incorrectly or not at all. It's your fault America for being so apathetic when it comes to politics. It's your fault for electing these paranoid jackasses. It's your fault for voting for the political party over the character of the person running just so you can feel like your side won. It's your fault for not educating yourselves to the real issues. Our founding fathers gave us a constitutional republic, but you'd hardly think that anymore. Educate yourselves to the real issues, vote as often as possible at every level of government, vote for a person not a party (like Ron Paul!), and there will be far fewer paranoid jackasses like this in government.

Earl MardleSeptember 4, 2007 5:08 PM

cornellbox almost has it

"Call this the "Boston Razor" (like Occam's Razor): Anything that is unknown must be terrorism."

The correct formulation of the "Boston Razor" should be : Anything that a fool can't understand must be terrorism.

After all, terror is not about what THEY do, its about how WE respond. If we are not terrorised, it is not terrorism, it may be a crime under various laws, but its only terrorism if it makes us afraid.

Right now, in much of the English speaking world, "Boo" is terrorism.

ACESeptember 11, 2007 7:46 PM

Does this mean that local police are unable to distinguish between flour and bioterror-related substances? So with a few dozen pounds of flour and a few dozen pounds of salt I can keep all the police in my county tied up for weeks.

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..