Let's begin with a picture.
Now for some background.
Recently, a publicity stunt by a late night Cartoon Network show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, caused a big scare in Boston. So reports The Boston Channel:
BOSTON -- Turner Broadcasting plans to take responsibility for the "hoax devices" that were found at sever allocations in and around Boston Wednesday that forced police bomb units to scramble throughout the area.The incidents were part of a marketing campaign that involved a character from the cartoon show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force.""The 'packages' in question are magnetic lights that pose no danger. They are part of an outdoor marketing campaign in 10 cities in support of Adult Swim's animated television show 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force,'" Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of Cartoon Network, said in a statement.
The company said that they have been in place for two to three weeks in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland,Austin, San Francisco and Philadelphia.Turner Broadcasting is in contact with local and federal law enforcement on the exact location of the billboards, according to the statement, and regrets that they were mistakenly thought to pose any danger. The cartoon airs as part of the Adult Swim late-night block of programs on the Cartoon Network.It features characters called "mooninites," who were pictured on the found devices. A feature length film based on the cartoon is scheduled to be released late next month.
Gov. Deval Patrick praised the response of law enforcement and said that he was "dismayed to learn that many of the devices are a part of a marketing campaign by Turner Broadcasting.""This stunt has caused considerable disruption and anxiety in our community. I understand that Turner Broadcasting has purported to apologize for this. I intend nonetheless to consult with the attorney general and other advisors about what recourse we may have," Patrick said.
Boing Boing picked up the story and ran with it, because the case highlights the conflict between fighting terror in America and preserving freedom of speech. Why did people perceive this image as a terrorist threat? Why didn't they shake their heads and move on? Was it the finger? Was it the blinking lights? Was it the size of the objects? I wonder.
Techdirt also weighed in, noting that if your only anti-terrorism tool is a bomb squad, suspicious objects start to look more and more explosive.
While I don't think that the Boston police department believed in a ridiculous scenario like this video, I do think people overreacted to what they saw as merely unfamiliar and offensive.
Thus leading to my concern for free speech. Having seen several episodes of the show, I wouldn't have been surprised in walking past that picture, but another person may have thought differently. According to Boing Boing, the law being used in this scenario focuses solely on the intent of the devices "to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort to any person or group of persons."
This seems like a pretty flexible piece of legislation, especially when the intent of the creators gets grossly misconstrued in its transmission to the public. The situation becomes especially tenuous when its the judges who, after the fact, "shall, after a conviction, conduct a hearing to ascertain the extent of costs incurred, damages and financial loss suffered by local, county or state public safety agencies and the amount of property damage caused as a result of the violation of this section." What check is there to keep people from claiming that everything was intended to be a bomb, turning the streets into a scene similar to the Salem Witch Trials (as has been argued by others)?
So in the end, the thing I'd like to see is a calmer, more rational public with regards to terror. It seems like a contradiction in terms, not to mention an impossible feat given the daily amount of terror based news we're supplied with. However, unless we want to start being scanned everywhere we go, having every accessory checked by some Big Brother at every turn, then we better relax and start realistically counting the odds of a terror attack. Otherwise we're in danger of hastily letting go of some of our most treasured liberties.