An Innocent Pressure Cooker Pays The Price In The War On Terror

We talk a lot about “disruption” here at Techdirt, although generally not in this context.

Police Lt. Kimberly A. Schneider told The Associated Press that Capitol Police officers on routine patrol spotted the parked, unoccupied vehicle on a street on the mall west of the Capitol around 5 p.m. Sunday.

“Further investigation revealed a pressure cooker, and an odor of gasoline was detected,” Schneider said, adding a Capitol Police bomb squad was called in because the vehicle was deemed “suspicious in nature.”

She said the squad known as the Hazardous Devices Section destroyed “items of concern in the vehicle including the pressure cooker” at about 7:45 p.m. after temporarily closing off the area on the long Memorial Day holiday weekend. She did not immediately identify the other items but said only that “this safe disruption produced a loud ‘bang.’

That’s how the “boots on the ground” War on Terror ends continues: not with the whimpering of surveillance state enthusiasts in legislators’ clothing, but with the “bang” of a “safe disruption.” It also continues with the delivery of witless soundbites from Official Obvious.

“Odor of gasoline” emanating from a vehicle that operates on gasoline? Do tell. Or how about this, just in case we citizens wonder whether blowing up disrupting common items frequently carried in vehicles is the way it’s just going to be from now on?

Authorities have noted that pressure cookers have been used in the past to create explosive devices.

Presumably, these same authorities can also be counted on to point out that planes have been hijacked in the past, just in case anyone has forgotten the “devices” used in high-profile terrorist attacks on American soil.

While I appreciate the fact that law enforcement officers don’t really have the luxury of gambling with other people’s lives by playing “Bomb or not?” when coming across items like these, there’s a definite lack of restraint in play here. The person who owned the vehicle was located and charged (because how can you not after you’ve smashed his back window, blown up his personal property and, as a last step, performed a “hand search” that turned up nothing suspicious) with “operating after revocation”: driving without a valid license.

Israel Shimeles operates a food truck (SUSPICIOUS!) and moved those items to his parked car to make more room in his truck. He has since apologized and calls his own actions “stupid.” That’s the world we live in today, where a propane tank and a pressure cooker laying in plain sight in a parked vehicle results in destroyed property and apologies from the person who’s now out a pressure cooker, propane tank and rear window.

He also says he’ll “be more careful” in the future. This suggests the “explosive” items will be safely stowed in his food truck or out of sight in a parked vehicle. This will also keep the inherently suspicious items out of the view of passing police officers — the sort of precaution one would assume an actual terrorist would take to ensure his or her “disruption” isn’t “disrupted.”

And let’s not overlook the dissonance of the solution. The items were deemed a threat to others in the crowded National Mall area, but could be safely “disrupted” a few yards away from their original location. While I understand it’s not safe to carry around possible explosives, this fix seems about as respectful of the public’s safety as the TSA’s policy of tossing seized liquids (“potential explosives,” to TSA agents) into nearby trash cans. If something may blow up spectacularly (and dangerously), why is it suddenly “safer” a few feet removed from its origin? Yes, it was a “controlled” detonation, but there’s a lot of incongruity to the visual of the “disruption” tossing debris within a foot or two of the vehicle the supposed bomb was removed from.

I don’t expect authorities to do nothing when spotting possible explosive devices. I’m just disappointed that this is the new standard for “suspicious” items — a mindset that will outlast terrorist-“targeting” government surveillance programs, apparently. Because two people used pressure cookers in their terrorist attack, pressure cookers are now viewed as bombs by default — despite 99.999% of pressure cooker purchases resulting in nothing more than cooked food.

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