Free the Boston Two!

The mayor, the media, and the panic they caused


Let's all empty our lungs and say it: Three cheers for Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens.

• The two artists took a $600 paycheck, split down the middle, to brave quasi-arctic weather and paste up brightly-lit guerilla advertising for Aqua Teen Hunger Force across the city of Boston. (Their doing so, pointed out Stephen Bainbridge, represented a true triumph of capitalism.)

• They exposed the sleeping bear tactics of Boston's terrorism response network, which consist of taking three weeks to notice something "suspicious," then locking the metropolis down in a panic without testing to deduce whether several dozen "bombs" are actually "harmless mini-billboards covered with light bulbs."

• They masterfully punctured the scare-driven self-importance of TV news. First they gave the networks (including all three cable news channels) a black eye for breathlessly hyping a threat that didn't exist. Then, showing off balls so big and so brassy that they could knock the Moon off orbit, they called a press conference to speculate about the origins of 1970s hairstyles.

We can argue over whether all of these makes Berdovsky and Stevens authentic folk heroes or simply right-place-right-time accidental heroes. But we need to agree that they're not villains. That sentiment has been completely lost as Boston's media (led by the tabloid Boston Herald) and the Howard Beale impersonators of Fox News who poked, lampooned, and threatened two harmless "starving artists." The Herald's Howie Carr, his face several shades redder than its usual cerise, dubbed Berdovksky (who is from Belarus) a "nerd," "slacker," "moonbat," and "Borat," while fantasizing about his deportation.

Hey Borat, you're not a citizen? That's too bad. How does five years at Cedar Junction sound, followed by a steerage-class flight back to the Third World hellhole from which you came, to annoy the taxpaying citizens?

Fox News' John Gibson, doing his best to make the world forget his stint as a left coast entertainment reporter, struck the same tone. He led Fox's coverage of the affair, accompanied by chyrons that dubbed Berdovksy and Stevens "hippie dudes," "hippie pranksters," "hoax jokesters," and "loony toons." "Here's hoping these arrogant bleeps go to jail," he snarled, while Fox legal expert Andrew Napolitano patiently explained that the artists hadn't done anything we could execute them for.

The Gibsons and Carrs covering this story do so because, they'll tell you, the artists wasted the time and money of Boston's police forces and trapped thousands of hapless civilians in traffic and freezing weather. But this isn't what they're angry about. For reporters and pundits, Berdovsky and Stevens are instruments for frustration about terrorists and the security state.

There is anger about the way American soldiers can't defeat the inexhaustible supply of enemies in Iraq; there's anxiousness, ever-present, about every report of mysterious packages or white powder or, as in New York in 2005, "specific but not credible" reports. Occasionally we drown our sorrows with the killings or trials of some actual terrorists. More often, we cope by targeting people who don't support the war on terror (in the U.S. or in the Iraq bureau) and pinning some of the blame of them. This week, it's Berdovsky's and Stevens' backs collecting the pins.

Not all public manias are acceptable. This one is. After a terror scare, the scared—in this case Boston Mayor Thomas "Mumbles" Menino, some Bostonians, and the national media—don't ask whether they overreacted. This is impossible; you can never overreact to terrorism. Those terrified mayoral statements to cameras are defensible, not uninformed. Those bright, red, clanging news alerts are informing the public, not exploiting viewers' basest fears. Does the hyping of bomb threats make urbanites more skittish and more likely to report a souped-up lite brite as a "suspicious device"? It doesn't matter. As Brian Doherty noted yesterday, panicked civilians calling to report those lite brites are considered a "perfect example" of "taking part in Homeland Security."

It's strange logic. The Bostonian who called in the phony threat is considered diligent, even though citizens in every other location where advertisers place the lite brites got the jokes. As the cartoonist August Pollak noted:

The "devices" were placed in ten cities, and have been there for over two weeks. No other city managed to freak out and commit an entire platoon of police officers to scaring their own city claiming they might be bombs. No other mayor agreed to talk to Fox News with any statement beyond "no comment" when spending the day asking if this was a "terrorist dry run."

The guerrilla campaign was working, actually. If Boston's law enforcement network had better intelligence—we're talking human intelligence, not a web of hidden cameras—they would have figured out that hipsters had been smiling at the signs for two weeks. They might have realized that garish cartoon pictures, unlike inconspicuous suitcases or shoes or backpacks, are not the delivery methods that terrorists use for bombs.

The same goes for Bostonian and national reporters, and it was in dealing with them that Berdovsky and Stevens made the evolution from loveable patsies to 15-minute icons. When reporters fielded questions about the ads, about what they were feeling, and all the usual boilerplate that comes with a TV camera scrum, the artists responded by talking about their haircuts.

"What was it like to spend last night in jail?"
"That's not a hair question. I'm sorry."
"Do you feel like you owe people an apology?"
"That's also not a hair question."

The video of this press conference has trafficked around the internet as fast as these things can happen; it's been linked on the Drudge Report and my pals on Facebook have made sure that everyone they know can see it. Massachusetts authorities persist in calling the LED scare a "hoax" and invoking 9/11 ("Just a little over a mile away from the placement of the first device, a group of terrorists boarded airplanes and launched an attack on New York City") in the hopes that spectators will stop laughing and come to their side.

It's not really working, and it's not going to work. Not only do people under 35 understand that Stevens and Berdovsky were blameless, but the growing number of people who consume their media online, from Daily Kos to Free Republic, are howling with laughter at Boston and the TV reporters. If it's not enough to stop the state and the media from putting us on terror alerts every week, it should be enough to stop the artists from being railroaded.

David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.