Friday, January 13, 2006

No bomb
Wednesday I commented on a report from San Francisco that the police had arrested a man for planting a bomb in a Starbucks. I was offended that the police immediately decided that the case did not constitute terrorism. As a good liberal, I immediately suspected racism or nativism (i.e. white, Christian citizens are, by definition, not terrorists). I indignantly demanded to know, "In what way is a bomb left in a public place not terrorism?"

Today, I got my answer. It's not terrorism if there was no bomb and the suspect never claimed that there was. The "bomb" was a broken flashlight.
San Francisco authorities struggled to explain Thursday how they concluded that an object left in a Starbucks bathroom was a bomb, when tests revealed it was nothing more than a flashlight with corroded batteries.

"This appeared, by itself, to be a bomb," said police spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens, who was the first to relay word from bomb squad investigators Monday afternoon that the object was an "improvised explosive device." The news quickly went national, and at one point CNN was broadcasting developments.

Gittens would not specify what about the device was so convincing, other than to say that all the people who saw it described it as a "tube-shaped cylinder with a fuse."

The incident began when an employee of the Starbucks at 1401 Van Ness Ave. spotted the object in the bathroom after a man came in, asked for coffee grounds and then used the restroom.


The man who says he left the flashlight in the Starbucks, Ronald Schouten, 44, remains in custody in County Jail on unrelated matters. He told police he had found the flashlight on the street and thought it could be used for self-defense, but decided to leave it behind after using the restroom.

Let's be generous. An employee of the store looked in the bathroom and saw a tube-shaped object. Rather than go poke at what might be a pipe bomb, his manager called the police. That's probably a reasonable reaction these days, especially in a major iconic city like San Francisco.

The police who arrived saw "tube-shaped cylinder with a fuse." They can't explain now what gave them the impression of a fuse. They came expecting a bomb and when they looked, they saw a bomb. It's not unusual for the minds of people in stressful situations to add details. Witnesses to plane crashes almost always think the planes were on fire, even when photos show no fire. At worst, it was a little unprofessional not to be able to control their stress better, but it's still understandable.

What's not understandable is this:
The man had aroused the suspicion of employees, one of whom checked the bathroom as soon as he left and found what turned out to be a quarter-stick of dynamite next to the toilet, said Lt. Dan Mahoney of the police special investigations unit.

He described the bomb as an empty flashlight casing that contained the quarter-stick of dynamite and a fuse. The fuse would have to have been lit for the bomb to explode, Mahoney said.

And this:
The SFPD bomb squad confirmed it was definitely an explosive device, reports Manuel Ramos of CBS Station KPIX-TV. A small charge was set off to disarm it.

Police said the bomb was powerful enough to seriously injure or kill someone if it had exploded.

Two different sources give details of an explosive device when there was no such device. Both say their information came from the police. Were the reporters making up details and attributing them to the police or were the police spokespersons making up details before they had accurate information? We don't need to look for sinister motives. Reporters might exaggerate in order to scoop their competitors or please their editors. The police spokesperson might exaggerate to satisfy insatiable reporters.

However, even if nothing sinister was going on, it appears that there was plenty of sloppiness and lack of professionalism invloved. No wonder people don't trust "official" sources of information. We deserve better.

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