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Assessing the Rise in ‘Suspicious Package’ Reports Since the Boston Bombing

By: Kevin Gosztola

April 26, 2013


Creative Commons-licensed Flickr photo by Elvert Barnes taken on September 17, 2011 at Foggy Bottom Metro stop in DC

It has been more than ten days since the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon took place. Since the bombing, there has been a spike in reported "suspicious packages."

An elementary school in Loudoun County in Virginia was evacuated this morning when a teacher received a package she thought contained a "suspicious substance." It was deemed harmless by police. Deputies in Arcadia, Florida, reported a woman had received a "suspicious package" from Mexico containing white powder and a HazMat team had responded.

In Passaic, New Jersey, the bomb squad responded to a "suspicious package" on the steps of Abraham Lincoln Middle School that turned out to be a "student’s backpack." A "suspicious item" reported in Montebello, California, was a "metal water bottle."

Two Hawaii courthouses were shut down on Thursday. The police actually appeared to find something, as Courthouse News reported "a package had plant fertilizer and a galvanized pipe." But, was it dangerous? Police did not provide additional information.

That evening, a main Manhattan bus terminal was shut down over a reported "suspicious package." It was a leather bag with a comforter and possibly some clothing.

In San Francisco, a library was shut down and a school was evacuated. Police responded to three reports of "suspicious packages" in Salem, Oregon, but nothing hazardous was found. A "suspicious package," which the bomb squad responded to in Lemon Grove, California, was found to contain sausages.

Police regularly receive reports of "suspicious packages," but, obviously, Americans are all jittery in the aftermath of the Boston bombing. As one ABC News correspondent put it, Americans are "seeing something and saying something in droves."

What is the effect of all these news reports of "suspicious packages," which more than ninety percent of the time are completely harmless?

Would national and local news media organizations be reporting every single one of these if there had not been a bombing? Perhaps, but, to the extent that news media are paying closer attention because of the Boston bombing, they are only fueling anxiety and hysteria.

On April 16, the day after the bombing, the New York Daily News reported police in New York were responding to a "surge in calls about suspicious packages across the city." Gothamist reported the New York Police Department (NYPD) had received 77 reports of "suspicious packages." (One year ago, in the same period, there had been 21 reports of "suspicious packages.")

New Jersey Transit reported an uptick in "suspicious package" reports. "An NJ Transit customer flagged down a security worker after seeing a lone package near the city subway entrance of the station, which sits near NJ Transit’s Newark headquarters," according to the Herald News.

That night, on ABC’s "World News with Diane Sawyer," it was reported, "In downtown Seattle, streets were shut down due to a suspicious backpack. The bomb squad sent in its robot, inside a hair dryer. East coast airports had the jitters. At Logan airport, delays over suspicious packages and passengers. At New York LaGuardia, another suspicious item and passengers [were] forced to wait outside in the street."

The following day, April 17, a "suspicious package" was found in the Senate Hart Office building just before noon. According to CNN, the building was not completely evacuated but people were not being let and those on upper floors were being asked to remain in their offices. It was a "modified lockdown."

CNN noted, "It’s very important to keep reminding our viewers, that’s it’s not unusual to get suspicious packages and envelopes that come to offices," but, despite the fact that this might be normal, CNN still reported it because, not only was the country on edge after the bombing, but "suspicious letters" possibly poisoned with ricin were found by Capitol Police.

A pressure cooker mailed to an office in Pittsburgh was "one of several reports of suspicious packages Pittsburgh police investigated." Police also detonated a "suspicious package" that contained "shoes and clothing," according to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

In El Paso, TX, according to the El Paso Times, police detained a man after he "made a comment that worried a clerk" and left a "suspicious package" at a gas station. The bomb squad responded and determined that it was a "hoax."

The bomb squad in San Francisco investigated a "suspicious package" on April 18, early in the morning that disrupted a planned ceremony marking the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. NYPD investigated a "suspicious package" in a parking lot that turned out to be a "housewares item."

A "suspicious package" at a Victorville, California, bank was reported by a local newspaper on April 19. There were reports of "suspicious packages" at the University of Southern California, Cabrillo College and the College of the Redwoods, but the Associated Press noted bomb squads found nothing "out of the ordinary." In fact, the "suspicious package" at Cabrillo College was, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, a "class project."

Deputy April Skalland commented, "The student was assigned to present a project about something she didn’t like, and the student did not like when people buy wrapping paper for a gift rather than wrapping it in newspaper or other recycled paper." It was found on top of a recycling bin and reported by someone as "suspicious."

The LAist also reported, the same day, "In Beverly Hills, a call about a bomb at a Rite Aid drugstore on Canon Drive led to a shutdown of streets and an investigation by police, who ultimately deemed the whole thing baseless."

A local newspaper in New Haven, Connecticut, reported police had received 10 reports of "suspicious packages" since the Boston Marathon bombing. Police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, investigated reports of "suspicious packages" and cleared four streets but nothing was found.

On Sunday, April 21, a terminal at JFK International Airport was closed after a "suspicious package" was reported.  The following day there were "suspicious bags" reported in Montebello, California.

Monday afternoon, an elementary school in Layton, Utah, was evacuated over a "suspicious package." In this case, it actually turned out be a pipe bomb with rifle gunpowder, which a maintenance worker had found on the roof, that had not been joined with a lit fuse yet.

The Los Angeles Times highlighted "the surge in bomb squad calls from people who think they’ve spotted an explosive and an uptick in fake threats from people seeking attention during a time of fear and frayed nerves" on April 23. Los Angeles police were getting five to seven calls a day, "a significant increase." This led one police lieutenant in Los Angeles to suggest "people do a little investigation on their own to make certain the item doesn’t belong to a neighbor, co-worker or fellow student prior to summoning police."

On Wednesday, April 24, authorities detonated a "suspicious package" found at the Virginia Military Institute that turned out to have no explosives. Again, LAPD were responding to reports of a "suspicious package" that led to the closure of city streets for a part of the day that turned out to be harmless.

*

It is true that all of the "suspicious package" reports have not all been deemed harmless, and it is true that there are individuals like this man in Miami, who allegedly planted a hoax bomb at the airport, and deserve attention. But, these constant reports of "suspicious packages" have a way of reminding fearful citizens of the thought of what could happen if one of the packages just so happened to contain explosives.

Not all media reports run headlines noting the "suspicious package" was harmless. It is possible that the population that consumes these local news reports thinks more "suspicious packages" found were found to be dangerous than harmless when it is actually the inverse.

The reports reinforce security culture and snitch culture in America while also reinforcing this notion that the homeland is a battlefield. They escalate the possibility that a climate is created where politicians over-react and pass some legislation that does not improve the safety of Americans but threatens civil liberties and turns America into more of a closed society. Or, it motivates politicians to not take up debate on policy proposals, like those that make up immigration reform, just now.

It may be time to take a break from local news, which will lead with the latest bomb scare, or turn off CNN, which will report on things even if they don’t know what they are and make people needlessly anxious. Definitely turn off Fox News before you go beyond reporting "suspicious packages" to deciding to lash out in public at any Muslims you encounter.

There is nothing wrong with suggesting Americans pay attention to what is happening around them. Yet, it seems like calls from President Barack Obama, governors, mayors and law enforcement to be vigilant are unnecessary because all humans are programmed to examine their surroundings and respond to threats they may perceive to their selves or the well-being of others. They only prolong the state of anxiety and hysteria this country appears be going through in the aftermath of the bombing.

People should calm down. They should also take some time to confront what makes people angry enough to turn to violence and launch attacks against Americans.

Confront the impact of US military and covert operations on countries. Confront US drone strikes in countries like Yemen, Pakistan or Somalia that only fuel the growth of militant groups.

Confront the dysfunctional operation of national security agencies that collect an over-abundance of data on threats and fail to connect the dots when real threats arise, as is what appears to have happened with the Boston bombing that, like the 9/11 attacks, probably could have been prevented.



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