"Innocent" Ideas That Prompted Mass Hysteria

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On Monday, buildings throughout Manhattan's financial district were evacuated, emergency responders were inundated with panicked phone calls, and one pregnant woman had to go to the hospital after a Boeing 747 apparently chased by a F-16 jet flew less than 1500 feet above the city's sky-line.

Federal officials had an inkling that the stunt may cause "public concern," but that didn't stop them from going ahead with their plans to buzz traumatized Lower Manhattan. But the incident "“ and the sound raking over the coals the feds have taken in its wake "“ put us in mind of other "innocent" ideas that prompted fierce and quick mass hysteria. Here are some recent examples.

Holy Hand Grenade evacuates city block

In March, London Police evacuated several buildings, including a pub, in an East London neighborhood after water company workers discovered a suspicious-looking device under a manhole cover.

The suspicious-looking device? A replica of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, it was painted gold and said "Holy Hand Grenade" on it. Yes, it was just like the one used in the movie to slay the vicious killer rabbit ("It's got fangs!"). And yes, it shut down a Shoreditch block for nearly an hour as police tried to figure out if it was dangerous.

Police confirmed that the unknown object was indeed a Holy Hand Grenade, but there's no word on whether the Holy Pin was still intact.

Cartoon ads bring Boston to standstill

It must have seemed like a pretty great gig for two video and light artists not long out of college: Employed by a marketing company, Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, got to instigate a guerilla marketing campaign to advertise a cult cartoon on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

aqua-teen.jpgIn January 2007, the duo was hired to put up battery-operated LED-light up boards featuring the Mooninites, characters from the show. The little light-up Mooninites, each one frowning and exuberantly wagging a middle finger, were placed in slyly visible places "“ like under bridges.

At night, the light-up images were clearly, if cheekily discernible; during the day, however, the black boxes and electronic wiring prompted multiple bomb scares, completely shutting down bridges all around Boston, a portion of the Red Line (incidentally, my main ride from my office to home), as well as portions of the Charles River. Of course, when police and bomb squads finally got a hold of the devices, rather than a nefarious plot to bring Boston down, all they got was the middle finger.

Boston didn't find the whole situation nearly as funny as everyone else in the world did, and Berdovsky and Stevens were arrested. Mayor Thomas Menino said, responding to questions from reporters about the role of Turner Broadcasting, the company that essentially owned Aqua Teen hunger Force, in the debacle, "I just think this is outrageous, what they've done ... It's all about corporate greed." Police Commissioner Ed Davis decried the stunt as "unconscionable" and "a foolish prank." A police spokeswoman called the incident "a colossal waste of money."

Nor were they amused when, during a press conference following their arrest, the two merry pranksters refused to answer questions and instead talked about hair.

It was all incredibly embarrassing for Boston "“ especially as it turned out that the devices had already been in place for two to three weeks without anyone noticing or crying "homeland security threat." The lite-brite style boards had also been in place in some nine other cities, without prompting the same fierce hysteria.

In the end, Turner Broadcasting, the media corporation that owns Cartoon Network and was thus responsible for the ridiculousness, paid $2 million in restitution to Boston for the inconvenience. Prosecutors ultimately dropped criminal charges against Berdovsky and Stevens, though the pair had to perform 80 and 60 hours of community service respectively and issue a public apology.

College student arrested in circuit-board airport scare

Still smarting from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force scare, Boston authorities jumped the gun again when an MIT sophomore went to Boston Logan Airport on September 21, 2007, with a circuit board attached to her sweatshirt. MIT students do weird, weird things with "fashion" all the time, but Star Simpson, class of 2010, may have wandered a bit too far from Cambridge that day "“ she was arrested by Logan officers and charged with possession of a "hoax device."

star-bb.jpgThe homemade circuit board, which was attached to a 9-volt battery, featured green LEDs in the shape of a star. Simpson later told authorities that she had gone to the airport to pick up her boyfriend and said that she had approached an airport employee to ask which baggage claim to head to; State Police and MassPort authorities said Simpson was found by MassPort security roaming around the terminal and that she refused to say anything other than the LED board was "a piece of art."

The situation was further complicated by the fact that Simpson was carrying five or six canisters of Play-Doh in her hands, which, State Police said at the time, could have been mistaken for plastic explosives. Simpson was confronted outside the Terminal, where she complied with officers' demands. "Thankfully, because she followed instructions as was required, she ended up in a cell as opposed to the morgue," commented a State Police spokesman at a press conference following the incident. "Had she not followed instructions, deadly force may have been used."

Simpson was later sentenced to 50 hours community service and required to write a letter of apology for her actions. (One year later, BoingBoing interviewed Simpson.)

Beware all cylindrical objects

Back on April 22, a "suspicious package" left on a counter shut down Bank of America in Columbia, South Carolina. Bank employees phoned the police, who ordered an evacuation of the building and then evidently called every authority they could, from the fire department to local Homeland Security.

burrito.jpgThe "suspicious package" was a burrito. Police have no clues as to who may have left the burrito and news reports did not indicate what kind of filling was involved.

This was also not the first time a burrito has prompted terror, evacuations, and, dare we say it, mass hysteria. In 2005, a student at Marshall Junior High School in Clovis, New Mexico, was spotted carrying a two-and-a-half-foot long cylindrical object wrapped in tinfoil. It was only after school officials called in the cops, who shut down the street and kept the place covered with armed officers on nearby rooftops, that they found out the object was a burrito. The student had made it for extra credit.

Moving on, April was evidently a big month for cylindrical objects wreaking havoc across the nation. The Sheriff's Office of Washington County, Oregon, was forced to issue a somewhat contrite press release on April 12 after they went full-tilt after a suspicious package found right outside the Sheriff's Office front door. The Sheriff called into the Portland Police Bomb Squad and their bomb robot to investigate the package, which appeared to be a brown canvas bag containing a cylindrical, silver-colored object.

In this case, the cylindrical object was, in fact, a titanium prosthetic leg. And, as with the burrito, the owner of the leg remains unknown.

And finally, in a story that marries both national paranoia and the abysmal economy, fire department officials closed a street in San Diego and evacuated all the buildings on it after another suspicious cylindrical object was found in front of a business on April 23. The business was a pharmaceutical company that had recently laid off a number of employees, employees who were now angry and potentially seeking retribution. This situation, however, was nothing so dramatic. The object turned out to be"¦ an empty cardboard tube.

Each of those examples has occurred in what authorities and the news media call the "post-9/11" world, a world currently dominated by a certain amount of righteous and somewhat justified paranoia. But hearkening back to a more innocent day, there have been more than a few incidents of mass hysteria "“ the granddaddy of them all, of course, being the famous War of the Worlds debacle, in which Orson Welles managed to convince scads of listeners that the world was in fact being invaded by aliens.

Any other incidents of mistaken intentions causing mass hysteria that come to mind?

April 30, 2009 - 8:30am
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