In December, 1999, a U.S. Customs agent in Port Angeles, Washington became suspicious of one passenger driving his car off a ferry from Canada, and asked him to step out of the car. While she was trying to get him to answer questions while she checked his passport, other customs agents searched the car, and found a large number of bags and bottles of suspicious substances. The driver fled on foot, was tackled a few blocks away, and arrested.
Experts quickly determined that the materials in the car were ingredients to build a very big bomb, and soon put the pieces together of a plot to set the bomb off at the Los Angeles International Airpot on New Year’s Eve.
In Seattle, a suddenly nervous mayor and city council feared that there might be more bombers out there, and announced they were considering canceling the New Year’s Eve fireworks display at the Space Needle, just in case. People were upset. Businesses that had spent a lot of money for the celebration were very upset. People argued that canceling the celebration would be the same as surrendering to the terrorists.
After bit of sturm und drang, the officials agreed to let the fireworks go forward. But the park around the Space Needle would be fenced off, so the public could not come in. Some private property owners offered to clear out a couple of nearby parking lots so people could gather there. And the fireworks happened.
And Mayor Paul Schell (whose embarrassing defeat in the primary election the next year has earned him a bit of immortality, as reporters in Western Washington now refer to the act of an incumbent failing to advance from the primary to general elected as being “Schelled”) earned a new nickname: Mayor Wimp.
The stupid part was that fencing off the park didn’t put anyone in any less danger. Since the parking lots were announced days in advanced, any theoretical bombers could have placed their bomb near one of those parking lots and caused a horrific number of deaths. The only thing that the fencing did was make sure that those tragic deaths would happen on private property, so the city would theoretically not be liable.
As if a good legal team couldn’t argue the city was still somewhat culpable because the city told people to gather at the parking lots.
It’s tempting, when some horrible thing like a bombing, a shooting spree, or a threat of such a thing happens, for people to run around frantically doing things to keep people safe. Just in case someone else is planning the same thing. Or in case someone decides to copy the sociopath.
Bank robber Willie Sutton (who stole about 2 million dollars during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and spent more than half his life in jail) is said to have once answered that he picked banks because “that’s where the money is.” He probably never actually said those words, but they remain true nonetheless.
The Millenium Bomber wasn’t targeting LAX because he had a grudge against that airport. The Theatre Gunman didn’t target The Dark Knight Rises because he hates Batman movies. These places are picked because that’s where people are.
And the reason no one was killed in a bomb blast near the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve, 1999, wasn’t because nervous officials fenced off the park. It was because no bomber was targeting Seattle that holiday.
If we all suddenly decide not to got to the movies, the next nutjob will just figure out where the most people will be, and he’ll go there. Hiding isn’t a solution.
There isn’t an easy solution. We can look at better ways to enforce gun laws and better ways to deliver mental health care. We can try to pay a bit more attention to our surroundings. We can try to increase the amount of goodwill and mutual respect in society. Those things won’t cure the problem, but just like that Customs Agent who had a hunch, sometimes we’ll get lucky.