Bomb threats are hardly a new phenomenon. Just ask anyone from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assuming they’re honest, they’ll tell you it’s the most vexing dilemma in the world of law enforcement. Why? Because over 99.9% of them turn out to be a hoax. Yet standard procedure requires they all be taken seriously. Because well, what if…
I defy you to find a public safety issue that’s so incredibly generic, while at the same time, dangerously taboo and unavailable for public scrutiny. And that’s where the problem lies. How do you realistically confront an issue of tremendous magnitude when authorities and the general public are unable to have a frank discussion? Answer: you don’t. The conversation rarely takes place. Thus, potential consequences and risk/reward management implications grow accordingly and exponentially.
The world witnessed an “undiscussable” scenario play itself out on September 11, 2001. Passenger planes were hijacked and intentionally used as 250,000 lb. Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Now what if I told you that an entirely different, yet eerily similar scenario could unfold on any given Sunday? We’ll get to that in a bit.
First, let’s examine a few recent high impact bomb threat situations that never amounted to much. Except… they did. They’re paving the path to the future of bomb threat protocol.
So who’s the head honcho of private industry? Walmart.
In late November of 2015, coinciding with the biggest shopping weekend of the year, various Walmart stores received bomb threats in the form of automated robocalls. Bomb threats are actually somewhat common for the world’s largest retailer. But for a coordinated barrage of them to unfold on the weekend of Black Friday was particularly unsettling.
Roughly 100 Walmarts scattered throughout New York, Maine, Kentucky, Wyoming, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, West Virginia and South Dakota were besieged with automated bomb threats. Although I have no definitive proof, I suspect the number of locations may have been even more widespread.
In some cases, the stores opted to evacuate. In other cases, the threats were downplayed and shoppers carried on as usual. Some police departments deployed their SWAT teams. Others used bomb sniffing K-9 units to conduct extensive searches. And other law enforcement agencies, sensing it was likely a hoax, did little or next to nothing.
The Walmarts in Sioux Falls, SD are of particular interest. Why? Because they didn’t receive the actual threats. The bomb threat (directed at Walmart) was phoned in to the city police department. But here’s the dilemma. There are three separate Walmart stores in Sioux Falls. Considering the inability to distinguish which store might be in jeopardy, the police chief deployed the bomb squad to ALL three locations.
In the realm of communications, robocalls are nothing new. This format has been around for decades. It requires virtually no expertise and is relatively inexpensive. In the past decade, the degree of automation has become increasingly interactive and surprisingly more realistic.
Subject to human interpretation, a centralized threat can have decentralized consequences. In this day and age, bomb threats can spread like a real-world virus. Let’s just say that the notion of “one threat per location” is a little bit outdated.
Bomb threat “bait and switch” techniques have also been around for a while. Have you ever heard of the following scenario? A bomb threat gets called in to the high school on the North side of town. Authorities en masse physically converge in one direction. Meanwhile, there’s a simultaneous bank robbery on the South side of town. Was it a coincidence? Probably not.
Techniques resembling “bait and switch” can easily be mass-replicated in a technological capacity… bulk text messaging, wireless carrier hacks, opt-in notification abuse, phishing scams, targeted spam, etc. And they can have real-world ramifications… flash mobs, cash mobs, stock market volatility, active shooters, natural disaster evacuations (forest fires, flooding, tornadoes), etc. For every action, there is a reaction. It’s not terribly complex.
On Tuesday, December 15, 2015, a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education received a threatening email. New York City officials received and disregarded a similarly-worded threat. However, L.A. Unified School District Superintendent, Ramon Cortines, felt it was necessary to take action. “Out of an abundance of caution,” he made the decision to close 900 schools for the entire day. This determination impacted over 640,000 students, their parents, teachers, bus drivers, etc. Needless to say, his sole decision resulted in a significant disruption to the nation’s second largest city. It was the largest “bomb-threat shutdown” in the history of the United States.
Did Cortines make the right choice? Was he guilty of a knee-jerk reaction based on the prior San Bernadino, CA terrorist incident? Why did the New York City incident commander choose the opposite course of action? Should Cortines have consulted at length with the governor, the Department of Education or the FBI? It’s a difficult question to which there is no definitive answer.
Here’s a copy of the threat. Feel free to make your own determination as to whether his response was appropriate or justified.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
I am emailing you to inform you of the happenings on Tuesday, 12/15/15.
Something big is going down. Something very big. It will make national headlines. Perhaps, even international ones. You see, my last 4 years here at one of the district high schools has been absolute hell. Pure, unmitigated, agony. The bullying, the loneliness, the rejection… it is never-ending. And for what? Just because I’m ‘different’?
No. No more. I am a devout Muslim, and was once against violence, but I have teamed up with a local jihadist cell as it is the only way I’ll be able to accomplish my massacre the correct way. I would not be able to do it alone. Me, and my 32 comrades, will die tomorrow in the name of Allah. Every school in the L.A. Unified district is being targeted. We have bombs hidden in lockers already at several schools. They are strategically placed and are meant to crumble the foundations of the very buildings that monger so much hate and discrimination. They are pressure cooker bombs, hidden in backpacks around the schools. They are loaded with 20 lbs. of gunpowder, for maximum damage. They will be detonated via Cell Phone. Not only are there bombs, but there are nerve gas agents set to go off at a specific time: during lunch hour. To top it off, my brothers in Allah and I have Kalashnikov rifles, Glock 18 Machine pistols, and multiple handheld grenades. The students at every school in the L.A. Unified district will be massacred, mercilessly. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.
If you do end up trying to, by perhaps, beefing up security, or canceling classes for the day, it won’t matter. Your security will not be able to stop us. We are an army of Allah. If you cancel classes, the bombings will take place regardless, and we will bring our guns to the streets and offices of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Bakersfield, and San Diego.
I wish you the best luck. It is time to pray to allah, as this may be your last day.
I would never presume to pronounce judgment in hindsight. However, I do know one thing. A single, anonymous email threat, if worded convincingly, can have tremendous consequence. Also, the manner in which a threat of this nature was disseminated to all major news outlets, and then promulgated, can have significant, unforeseen repercussions. “Breaking News” is more than a slogan. These days, it’s a reality. Even if the content turns out to be deliberately untrue.
Fast forward one month. On Tuesday, January 26, 2016, a single witness reported hearing three gunshots in the parking garage of the U.S. Naval Medical Center in San Diego, CA.
Their facebook page administrator immediately posted the following message on social media:“All occupants are advised to run, hide or fight.” Considering the legitimacy of the source, that’s a pretty powerful message. Especially if you’re an employee or patient who’s casually checking their cell phone vibration.
The Department of Homeland Security has recently issued new guidelines for active shooter situations. In light of recurring tragedies at schools and military installations, “run, hide or fight” seems to have replaced the archaic notion of “duck and cover.”
There could be unanticipated consequences for this new decree, particularly as it relates to large, confined crowds (stadiums, ballparks, motor speedways, arenas and amphitheaters). Just something to think about.
Earlier in this article I mentioned 9/11 and referenced an unspeakable black swan event that could happen on “any given Sunday.” That event is a DOMINIPEDE (multiple, simultaneous human stampedes likely impacting the NFL 1 o’clock slate of games). Potentially 10 stampedes in cities along the East coast extending into the Midwest. Based on previous, historical models, that’s somewhere in the range of 100 fatalities per stadium. A total of 1,000 fatalities and 5 to 10x the number of injuries.
In the world of U.S. retail, Black Friday is big money. But I already mentioned it. So let’s try Cyber-Monday. In 2015, Cyber-Monday saw gross revenue nearing 3 billion.
The wealthiest NFL owner is Paul Allen of the Seattle Seahwaks. The Microsoft co-founder has a net worth of approximately 18 billion. Cyber-Monday represents a mere 1/6 of his net worth. Virtually every team owner is a multi-billionaire. The NFL is about money. The cautionary release of public safety information is a clear and present threat to the fortunes of the NFL… its players, its management and its owners.
Concerns regarding hypothetical, future litigation take precedence over easily identifiable safety issues. It’s part of the catch-22. If you acknowledge a problem, you own it. And if there’s a tragedy, you’re screwed. Cut and dry — it’s about money.
The LAUSD bomb threat was a singular hoax which resulted in a massive systemic disruption. However, there’s a far worse scenario — multi-pronged, decentralized bomb threats. It’s called a VIRAL BLITZKRIEG, commonly referred to as an info-bomb. There is no contingency plan for an all-out saturation of bomb threats.
Government and private industry have a moral, and many would argue legal obligation to inform individuals in large, confined crowds that a scenario like this COULD unfold. I believe they have an ethical obligation to extend a heightened level of situational awareness to attendees of major events. The alternative option is to do nothing, wait for a tragedy to unfold and then claim ignorance that something of this nature could never have been ATTEMPTED. In this case, inaction clearly demonstrates moral negligence. Unless of course, it’s reasonable to claim that nobody could have fathomed the modern, technological equivalent of shouting FIRE in a crowded theater. Considering the prevalence of cell phones/mobile devices and the abundantly generic nature of the concept, this is no longer a reasonable or maintainable position.
You cannot mitigate human stampedes. You prevent them.
The social media aspect governing the bomb scare at the San Diego Naval Medical Center set a dangerous precedent.
Social media forums, like facebook and twitter, can be inherently dangerous channels to convey imminent public safety warnings. This instantaneous transmission of information has an obvious downside as it could conceivably “spook” a large, confined crowd resulting in an ARTIFICIALLY GENERATED STAMPEDE.
Please make an effort to think beyond the obvious. There’s a commonly overlooked characteristic of the viral blitzkrieg. The panic-inducing information would likely come from people you implicitly trust (family and friends concerned for your well-being). It wouldn’t necessarily be in the form of these mysterious, anonymous text alerts. These same people, concerned for their loved ones, would have fallen prey to a malicious hoax. So it’s highly likely they would convey an alarmist sense of urgency.
Mankind has a long and storied tradition of NOT being proactive when it comes to generic public safety issues. Simply stated — large numbers of people must usually die or be injured BEFORE the government and private industry summon the inertia to make significant change.
Now here’s the question you must ask. Keep in mind that the solution to this problem doesn’t cost a penny. After all, it’s free… much like warning a person to “look both ways before they cross the street.” So is it ethically worthwhile to make a voluntary admission of a potential negative outcome (an artificially generated stampede), or something far worse (a dominipede), in hopes of averting a mind-boggling, black swan catastrophe?
I believe the answer to be a resounding yes.
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