Escalation is not better than resolution

Last month, I wrote a post about my thoughts on viral marketing, and outlined some rules that I felt the companies engaging in the practice would be well advised to follow. As part of that post, I also gave an illustrative example in the form of the recent debacle in Boston. In that incident, Turner Broadcasting hired a marketing company which installed a series of battery-operated signs throughout the city to promote their late-night cartoon show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The Boston Police Department, for its own part, decided that they were bombs. Parts of the city were shut down for hours, and one of the signs, which closely resembled a child’s Lite-Brite toy, was destroyed in a controlled detonation.

In my previous post, I took Turner Broadcasting to task for not following my very first rule: Know your audience. Clearly, the concept of leaving electronic devices without explanation, attached to major pieces of civic infrastructure in this day and age is asking for trouble. The ads might have been effective at reaching their intended audience (though the show’s ratings don’t seem to reflect any positive effect), but it neglected the important point that lots of other people, who had never heard of the show and likely wouldn’t watch it if they had, would also see the devices. I said that I found the resulting panic to be absurd, but nevertheless, it was predictable.

At least one person, in the comments on that earlier post felt that I was unfairly taking sides against Turner. Allow me, at this time, to reverse that trend. Regardless of any lack of foresight on the part of Turner Broadcasting (and there was plenty), the City of Boston should be ashamed of itself. This is not actually due to their handling of the incident at the time, which was reactionary and overblown, but nevertheless directed in the interests of public safety. Instead, my switch to outright condemnation results from their handling of several related issues in the aftermath.

First, and perhaps most predictably, the Boston Police Department has arrested Peter Berdovsky, who is another of the people who installed the signs. Two of his “accomplices” were arrested immediately following the security scare, but this new arrest has been longer in coming. Allow me to state explicitly, in case it is not already clear from my tone, that I think prosecuting people under terrorism charges for what they did is a shameful miscarriage of justice. This was, after all, an act which was not actually a threat to life or property and was not even intended to seem like it was.

The second, and in the end, more insidious issue is one of censorship. The City of Boston operates a municipal wi-fi network. Starting earlier today, users attempting to access the blogging and aggregate meta-site Boing Boing are finding themselves blocked from accessing it. The reason for this block appears to be that Boing Boing talks about the ridiculous overreaction of the Boston authorities, and some combination of the phrases they use have been blacklisted.

I hope, with all my heart, that this is some kind of “administrative error”, or the act of an overzealous employee, soon to be reversed. If not, both of these moves on the part of Boston, or its various authorities, are downright childish. Attempts to block out one’s critics by heavy-handed censorship are the kind of thing we in the United States are used to accusing abusive regimes in other nations of doing. Such an act has no place in this or any other country.

Likewise, arresting people on overblown charges seems like an outright attempt to justify shutting down parts of the city for hours. If these people are really terrorists, then it was entirely reasonable for the police to treat their activities like terrorist attacks. I’m sure that the police and the District Attorney in this case will argue that they are simply protecting the people of Boston. Even if the arrests are not motivated by an effort to make themselves look better, they are a travesty. I find it hard to view them in even that favorable a light, however.

This, at last, brings me back to the title of this post. The City of Boston, and its police, made an error in late January. They overreacted, and they were called for it, and made to look like fools. The thing to do in this case is to admit the mistake, apologize for the inconvenience caused, and to look for ways to better respond to similar incidents in the future. Simply turning up the heat on people to make yourself look less foolish not only fails to make you better able to do the right thing, it also compounds the magnitude of your idiotic decisions. The people of Boston deserve better. We all do.

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4 Responses to Escalation is not better than resolution

  1. Adam Gaffin says:

    The city actually operates two other public WiFi networks – one in the commercial districts of several city neighborhoods and the other at Boston Public Library branches across the city. When I read about the Boing Boing blocking, I went down to the park in the middle of my neighborhood’s business district and connected to BostonWiFi – and was able to get to Boing Boing with no problem (I was also able to get a signal from the library system, but, alas, its use requires a library card and I don’t have one).

    See Seth Finkelstein’s post – looks more like a censorware app seeing specific words than an attempt to squash Boing Boing. Anybody who thinks Tom Menino has even heard of Boing Boing seriously overestimate the amount of time he spends online.

  2. Mark says:

    Adam,

    Thanks for your reply. I am far from Boston, but it’s nice to see that people who are able to gather accurate information on the ground in Bean-Town are willing to take the time to keep the rest of us, spread out to the four corners of the Earth, up to date.

    As I said in my post, it is my most fervent hope that this is all some kind of mix-up. Based on the information in Seth’s blog (thanks for the link), I’d agree that if he’s right about what that message means about the internal flagging in the censorware, this is just a ham-fisted security settings problem, rather than a ham-fisted effort to silence a specific critic of the city administration. That would still make me grumpy, but considerably less so, I think.

  3. Meredith says:

    A few things-

    the city of Boston is not arresting people because they think that will make their previous reaction look justified. They’re arresting people because they’re worried that if they don’t, someone else will do a copy-cat in the future, presuming they won’t get into trouble for it… and the City would rather not look like idiots again when similar situations happen. They’re trying to create a precedent they think will save the city time and money- if not actually save people’s lives- because a copy-cat is just as likely to make something similar that is actually dangerous- then to do something as innocent as the first incident.

    Second- as for trumped up charges… that’s what law enforcement does. No one ever gets charged with only one crime, and they never get charged for just what they did. They get charged with as many different things as even tangentially relate- and they get charged with whatever carries the greatest sentences that relate- so that somewhere along in the process the defendant will plead out to lesser charges for fear of being found guilty of the trumped up ones.

    That said- I think if the system didn’t work the way it did- all logic would not have the city arresting these guys on terrorism charges… but that’s just being idealistic.

  4. Mark says:

    Meredith,

    I work hard to permit myself to be both realistic and idealistic at the same time. I have a reasonably firm grip on how the world actually works, but this does not preclude me from being aware of how it should work, too. The current situation in Boston, like other similar situations in other times and places, lends itself well to this kind of thinking.

    I entirely understand that the Boston authorities will say that they are arresting these people because they want to send the message that will not tolerate anyone carrying out acts which make people fear for their safety. Acts, in other words, which make people feel terrorized. They want it to be very clear that this is, to them and to every upstanding citizen of Boston, no laughing matter. They take the safety of each and every one of the 4.4 million men, women and children in the greater Boston metropolitan area very seriously, indeed.

    I am prepared to grant them a certain leeway in this matter. To be certain, the following is likely the only nice thing I am going to say about Boston PD for the rest of this comment. I urge you to read it carefully, so that it is not possible for you or anyone else to say I did not say at least something nice about them at all. Here it is: I am willing to accept that when they say these things, the majority of the people who say them truly, honestly believe the disgusting absurdities coming out of their mouths.

    Regardless of the earnestness of the people who utter such things, they hold no water with me. The people of Boston, and indeed the rest of the country, are done a great disservice in this matter. If we accept the message being conveyed by the authorities at times like this, we must accept that the criminal justice system in this country has no interest in what people intended, indeed that it has no interest in what they actually did. Instead, we must assume that what is important is how someone with no knowledge of the matter might respond if they were first cranked up to a fever pitch by a government interested in the pursuit of its current policies and a media which knows that fear sells better than smiles, and then exposed them to something and asked them to take the worst possible interpretation they could conjure from their imaginations on short notice.

    I said it in my first post, repeated it in this one, and will say it again here, too: I think Turner made a bad mistake on this one. However, to arrest people, even more than a month after the fact, when they know perfectly well what was in those blinking boxes, and charge them with serious felonies is a slap in the face of anyone who believes that law enforcement in this country works hard to protect and serve them. The realist in me knows that sometimes, law enforcement officers, like anyone else, find themselves following the strict letter of laws written by people suffering from utter ignorance of the implications of the words they pass into law. The idealist in me, however, refuses to roll over and accept that this is something I should be willing to tolerate.

    If I assume that Boston PD, the DA, and all the rest, are not doing this to cover their own ridiculous overreaction, the picture actually gets worse. Instead, they are now not even serving in their own interests when they act against everyone else’s. Though I may disparage simple self interest, I can at least easily understand it. Without self interest at its heart, though, what I see in Boston is scarier to me than any blinking box could ever be.

    I certainly understand the reasoning behind throwing a list of charges down to the floor and out the door at someone. Trying to frighten suspects into pleading down to lesser charges is an effective tactic. The idealist in me, though, says that it is not a good one. In part, this is because I have seen people decide to accept something smaller than what was threatened not because they knew they had done something wrong, and were taking the best deal they could get, but rather because they knew they didn’t have the resources to fight at all, and had simply been beaten down by a system they felt they lacked the power to stand up and fight. Yes, most people who plea down to lesser charges really are criminals, and we (the taxpayers) are saved a lot of resources by not having to prosecute these people. On the other hand, a small minority of them are not criminals at all, and the idealist in each of us must at least stop and make us ask ourselves if there isn’t a better way.

    I congratulate you on a firm grasp of realism. It will serve you well throughout your life. Don’t let it force you to loose touch with your ideals, though. It is those ideals that this nation was built on, and which have made it great enough that things like this, commonplace in any number of places, could threaten to make it worse, instead of being the day-to-day reality I refuse to accept they are here.

    Pardon the lengthy reply,
    –Mark

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