Let’s Start Ignoring Bomb Threats

It’s time to change the playbook.

Under a sliver of the bright moon in the December sky, school board members in New York and Los Angeles received coinciding bomb threat emails from a mystery menace. The ambiguous message made reference to explosive devices destined to crumble schools to the ground.

Los Angeles closed all schools for the day. New York did not.

We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Genuine terrorists almost never notify their targets of their plots. Why? Basic economics. It’s in the terrorists’ best interests to keep their plans secret in the name of death and destruction maximization. The objective of terrorism is to terrorize, and fear is increased when citizens remain oblivious to when and where it may materialize. Consequently, nearly zero actual terrorist attacks originate with foreboding prophecy. A superiority of bomb threats are delivered by pranksters, disgruntled employees, and students trying to avoid their Spanish midterms. It’s happened again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

For sake of impartiality, there have been exceptions when bomb threats were legitimate warnings from attackers. The 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem is a prominent example. Serving as the British administrative headquarters in Palestine, the Zionist organization Irgun telephoned the hotel’s switchboard operator three times to warn of the impending bombing, which were all ignored because of the numerous bogus threats made to the hotel in the previous weeks and months. The British government claimed there were no warnings, but Irgun representatives charge their claims were to reduce human casualties, as their primary objective was to destroy the building and send a message to the British. In a separate example, on occasion the Irish Republican Army was known for warning British and Northern Irish authorities of imminent bombings. When their threats went ignored, the group gained political leverage by placing blame for civilian fatalities on apparently inept law enforcement.

But these instances cannot be compared to modern terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Can you imagine either of these groups warning western targets with the intent of reducing the number of casualties? Of course not. And similarly, neither of these two groups have been known to use political tactics like the IRA. These assumptions absolutely apply to “lone wolf” terrorists, as well.

The straightforward reality is that modern “bomb threats” are not threats at all. They’re ill-advised practical jokes, and they should all be promptly and unquestionably ignored.

But Alex, what if just one bomb threat turned out to be real? Well, it won’t, but for argument’s sake lets assume for a moment this scenario happens. No additional civilians will die or be injured compared to if no threat were called in at all. In other words, when a bomb threat is ignored, the best-case scenario is we won’t waste taxpayer dollars on a police wild goose chase, and the worst case scenario is the execution of a terrorist attack. This would undoubtedly be tragic, but we won’t be any worse off than we would be anyway. Additionally, a non-reaction indicates we won’t allow our lives to be dictated by neither terrorists nor pranksters.

All this taken into consideration, let’s take another look at the recent bomb threat made towards schools in New York and Los Angeles.

The New York and Los Angeles school districts received nearly identical bomb threat emails, which suggested teams of jihadists would inflict towering human fatalities with guns, bombs, and nerve gas.

Context being an ever-present factor, Ramon Cortines, the Los Angeles schools chancellor, decided to cancel school for all institutions in the district, the recent shooting in San Bernardino being fresh in his memory. Hindsight may be clear as Crystal Pepsi, but I can epathise with Cortines’s decision given his frame of reference. Nonetheless, this was largely an emotional decision.

New York, unburdened by terror attacks of (relatively) recent, chose the analytical path.

Certain elements of the threat did not appear credible. The claim of 138 attackers at the ready seemed like a lofty figure, given the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 consisted of comparatively meager 19 men. The message contained the word “Allah” numerous times, but it was never capitalized, a radical departure from the norm for truly devout muslims. Additionally, both emails were routed through the same server in Frankfurt, Germany, implying a common source.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made the decision to continue the school day as normal…

“We’ve come to the conclusion that we must continue to keep our school system open. In fact, it’s important — very important not to overreact in situations like this.”

I don’t expect school, government, or law enforcement authorities to alter the bomb threat playbook, but they should. Astute observation, statistics, and common rationality indicate the outright rejection of such threats will result in identical outcomes at worst and saved taxpayer dollars and reduced public panic at best. It’s time for our leaders to embrace a new approach to terror threats — the war is already lost if we allow jokesters, stressed undergraduates, and disgruntled coworkers to dictate our lives.


Alex is a Xavier University alumnus, Army veteran, statistician, and tennis pro. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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