On January 31, 2007, at roughly 8 a.m., a Boston commuter noticed an odd device on a support beam for an elevated section of I-93 North. It was a small black box with a battery pack, some electrical tape, and an illuminated cartoon character flipping the bird. He alerted the Metro Police who called in a bomb squad, who noticed the similarities it held with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The highway, one of the busiest in the northeastern US, was closed down and a city-wide scramble of fire and police departments began to find the owner of the possible bomb and any other such devices, of which at least four were found scattered across Boston.
The devices, as authorities later learned, were actually a viral marketing campaign for the acerbic and stonerific Cartoon Network program Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The character on the front was a “Mooninite” and resembled nothing more than a Light-Brite. The campaign, led by marketing company Intereference, Inc., had been undertaken by Cartoon Network to promote the upcoming ATHF feature-length film. Interference had hired two young men, Peter Berdovsky and Paul Stevens, to place the devices around Boston and had similar campaigns in 9 other major cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Seattle.
Berdovsky actually witnessed police find the initial I-95 device. He called his contact at Interference who explicitly ordered him to not talk to police, promising the company itself would take care of that. He emailed friends of his to keep any information they had about his part in the campaign “on the dl.” By 3 p.m., Turner Broadcasting — parent company of Cartoon Network — had contacted Boston authorities as to the nature of the devices, as well as releasing a statement which said of the devices “We regret that they were mistakenly thought to pose any danger.” Berdovsky and Stevens were arrested after that night on a law which bans hoaxes meant to cause chaos.
Now, calling Berdovsky and Stevens “hoaxers” is a bit of a stretch. They both assumed they were in the middle of a darkly-hilarious mix-up, as evidenced by their bizarre and now legendary “Hair Styles of the 70’s” press conference upon making bail.
While the incident garnered the attention of many media outlets both local and national, most of the commentary centered on the humorous nature of the device, with some carrying signs around Boston stating “1-31-07 NEVER FORGET”. It is also all too easy to see their charges as the actions of an embarrassed city which had just shut down highways, streets, rivers, and Metro lines because of a cartoon.
There were several incidences that day which led many cities to be on high alert–several New Yorkers were hospitalized after strange smoke came out of a package by a Post Office, a DC Metro station had been shut down due to a bomb scare, and even a possible pipe bomb had been found in a Boston hospital. However, much of the free world looked upon Boston authorities and the Department of Homeland Security as in hysterics, pulling the hair trigger of the emergency alert system at the slightest sign of danger. Indeed, a lawyer representing Berdovsky and Stevens pointed out even a VCR could fit the description of an IED. And it was not the first time a town had overreacted to such a thing: in March 2006, an Ohio police department arrested five teenage girls who hung mock-ups of the Super Mario coin blocks around their town, believing them to possibly contain bombs (unlike the Mooninites however, these boxes were made of cardboard and contained no electronic element). The incident was seen as a side-effect to the fear 9/11 had instilled, as if the whole country was jumping at its own shadow.
Now, as we face yet another hallowed day at yet another hallowed ground, it becomes more and more difficult to believe anyone is overreacting. The horrific events in Boston on Monday unleashed the complete torrid randomness of our world combined with the strength of both police and citizens. Reports of flying limbs were matched by stories of marathon runners continuing the race all the way to the hospital to donate blood. Heroic images of the iconic Boston Police Department swiftly pulling away flags and fences have reminded us of the sheer crib of authority we complain about too much.
It’s hard to strike the balance of security we need and security we don’t. It’s hard to be even an average citizen and imagine what your place would be, who you would be willing to protect in the face of even possible danger. But as we mourn the three people killed (including an 8-year-old boy) and modern medicine rushes to save the lives of the (as of writing this) 140 injured, let us celebrate the beauty of a system nearly too eager to protect us. Let us celebrate the phone call to Metro Police, the bomb squad at the ready. Let us celebrate the days they find nothing when there actually is nothing. Celebrate the call of an abandoned bag, the flurry of dark blue uniforms, and the death tolls we never hear.