After actual bombings, just about any threat could be credible

Back in the day, it was relatively easy to find out who made bomb threats in our high school. Authorities would start by finding out which teachers were giving major tests or had big assignments due that day, and then pick up the usual suspects in each class and work them over until one of them confessed. They usually weren’t very bright to begin with and there was always a trail. It was a relatively fool-proof method most recently employed at Harvard in 2013 when Eldo Kim found he wasn’t ready for exam week.

“As I got closer to my last exam, I felt that I was under a huge amount of personal and academic pressure,” he said in a subsequent apology. “I had been sleep-deprived for days and was not thinking clearly. I could have gone to bed, sought help or just simply taken an exam I felt unprepared for. Instead, in the face of this anxiety and stress and blinded by the light of my ambitions, I lost sight of logic and reason. I absurdly acted in a way that put my personal priorities over the well-being of everyone else.”

But the school was shut down after authorities said the threat was “credible.” In hindsight, it wasn’t credible at all. The young man wasn’t in a position to plant a bomb at Harvard. What made it “credible”? People plant bombs to kill innocent people nowadays. Nothing more.

The chances are pretty good that the “credible threat” that got a day off for kids at Southwest High School in Minneapolis will turn out to be just as not credible as it did at Harvard, but who can blame authorities for not taking that chance?

And so they don’t, of course.

“We know today’s closure may have posed an inconvenience to some families, however we make decisions with the safety and security of our students and families in mind,” Stan Alleyne, the school district’s chief communications officer.

Bomb threats work now.

In the last few days, there have been 16 instances in which Twitter was used to make a bomb threat against an airline. Each resulted in disruption to air traffic, USA Today reported today.

“We’re seeing these new threats. In terms of the quantity of (online) threats we’re seeing now, you just haven’t seen it,” said Glen Winn, former head of security at Northwest Airlines and United Airlines and an instructor at the University of Southern California School of Aviation Safety and Security.

At least 10 threats were made Monday, some by hacker-type accounts. One led to a JetBlue flight from Boston to Palm Beach being returned to the gate before takeoff. The flight was canceled. The plane was searched and luggage rescreened; nothing hazardous was found.

That followed a weekend of Twitter bomb threats against flights. Sunday, one commercial flight was diverted, and two others were evacuated. Saturday in Atlanta, two flights in the air were escorted to their landings by military F-16 fighter jets after bomb threats were tweeted.

A Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to Orlando was diverted to Dallas on Sunday after a bomb threat was reportedly made via Twitter.

In Seattle, two arriving flights — a JetBlue flight from Long Beach, Calif., and a regional SkyWest jet from Phoenix — were evacuated away from other aircraft after they landed Sunday. “We’re still assessing the online threats,” said Ayn Dietrick-Williams, spokeswoman for the Seattle FBI office.

A former head of security for Northwest Airlines says in the history of aviation sabotage, there’s never been a case in which a warning was provided ahead of time.

SchoolSafety.org identifies three criteria for establishing credibility.

Three common questions to begin assessing school threats can include:

What is the motivation of the threat maker and credibility of the threat?
Could the threat maker have the information on how to carry out the threat (such as information on how to make bombs or homemade weapons, for example)?
Could the threat maker have access to the tools, and the capability, to carry out the threat?

Today, we know the answers to questions two and three could easily be, “Yes.” Information on how to carry out many threats is as accessible as a few strokes on a keyboard to search the Internet. The tools to carry out the threat can be as close as the local hardware, discount or other home supply store.

So educators and safety officials are often left focusing on the first question: What is the motivation of the threat maker and credibility of the threat? Unfortunately, this requires assessing human behavior and making a judgment call accordingly, which is not an easy task for even the most skilled criminologist, psychologist, psychiatrist or other student of human behavior.

Southwest will reopen on Thursday unless the “copycat” syndrome strikes. That was less a possibility in the old days, too, because media had a policy of not putting bomb threat stories on the air or in the paper; it just encouraged more bomb threats.

Those days are over, too.

  • Anna

    I can remember quite clearly where I was when the 9/11 attacks occurred. I was driving up US 61 to Winona for a job interview. The Classic Rock station I usually listened to in those days was known for playing practical jokes on the air. After listening to the broadcast for a couple of minutes, I came to the realization they were not joking—the United States was under attack.

    By the time I got to the interview, the Pentagon had also been hit. My potential employer, a State Farm agent had his radio on in the office. We just sat there in disbelief.

    Since that time, we have become prisoners to fear—-fear of bombings, fear of losing our jobs to the “bottom line”, fear of lawsuits for not taking a threat seriously, apologizing (out of fear) because the weather prediction was incorrect and millions of people were inconvenienced because officials wanted to keep them “safe.”

    I’m of the opinion our “fears” are exactly what keep us from being safe, if “being safe” is something that ever existed in the first place. Obviously safety has different definitions depending on your point of view.

    Common sense would tell you not to put a piping hot cup of coffee between your legs but McDonald’s learned a costly lesson about the court system’s definition of what constitutes “common sense.” After that case, the floodgates were opened to successful lawsuits that in a previous generation would had been laughed out of the courtroom.

    Unfortunately, the 9/11 attacks snuffed out any semblance of common sense that still existed in this country.

    If you don’t protect me from myself, I’m going to sue you.

    Case closed.

  • Jim G

    A bomb went off… spraying shrapnel in a Minneapolis suburban high school hallway. The year was 1968. I know because I was there; fifty feet from it where it went off. It was during the height of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and someone had taken the cause too far. It never even made a ripple in the functioning of the school. No one was hurt, although it was close, for the orchestra’s first violin section was just about to round the corner into the path of the blast. No one was sent home. The perpetrator was quickly identified and was never seen again. I now wonder if they identified this perp so quickly because there had been a phone threat. No one believed threats like that in those days. I am glad they do now.

  • John

    The fundamental problem is the high cost of dismissing the threat and being wrong.

    The opposite problem: A research group I was working with a few years ago was thinking about ways to screen the air circulating at sporting events, looking for markers of explosives and chem warfare agents. The idea was that the screening tools could be placed in the air handling equipment and voila, everything would be delivered right to the sensors.

    The fundamental problem was one of false positives. If something comes through and registers as an analyte of interest in the middle of the Super Bowl . . . now what? Evacuate? What if you’re wrong . . . you’ve now had a billion dollar event cancelled because you were over sensitive.

    False negatives are even worse, but it was never meant to be the only screening tool used, just one of many in the kit.

    My point is the stakes were too high for us to even look at the question seriously. The stakes are too high here too, so they will always err on the side of safety. I don’t like it, and don’t necessarily agree with the logic, but I don’t have to make the decision either. I sure wouldn’t want to be the principal or superintendent who got it wrong, didn’t cancel school, and the bomb was real.

  • jon

    I recall bomb threats when I was in grade school…
    We’d evacuate the building, just like a fire drill, we’d wait out side while the police and fire department showed up and surrounded the building, we’d all get tired of standing in line and sit down on the ground, the K9 explosive sniffing units from Chicago would show up and do a quick once through on the building, and then we’d all go back into school.

    Simpler times I suppose.

    In college, in a post 9/11 (happened a few months earlier) eco-terrorists called in a bomb threat… and it was real… the whole area was evacuated, and people were crammed into the cafeteria in my dorm… The bomb was simply gasoline and mechanical trigger device based around a kitchen timer… the timer froze in the cold of winter, and the bomb was defused and after sitting around in the evidence locker for a while, probably burned off in a squad car…

  • joetron2030

    Well, the “copy cat” syndrome struck to some extent. I heard this morning that Washburn was under lockdown.