Consider the phrase "bomb hoax."
Consider the phrase "bomb scare."
Consider the phrase "guerrilla marketing campaign."
Despite the bomb squads that gingerly removed the "electronic light boards depicting a middle-finger-waving moon man" from the greater Boston area, we learn that the War on Terror is now being fought in a new theater: Semantics.
Initially, the two men responsible for constructing and placing the Ignignokt LED devices, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, were arrested for placing "hoax devices" in a public places, a felony charge that could result in substantive imprisonment. Yet, the usage of the term "hoax device" is perhaps the greatest fraud in a series of misconceptions, deliberate or otherwise.
A hoax (noun)1 signifies "1 : an act intended to trick or dupe; 2 : something accepted or established by fraud or fabrication." As a transitive verb, "hoax" signifies "to trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous."
Both definitions rely heavily on intent: in the noun definition, the act must be "intended to trick or dupe," while in the transitive verb definition, one must "trick2 into believing or accepting [...] something false." In short, for a hoax to be a hoax, the hoaxer has to mean it.
By repeatedly referring to Berdovsky and Stevens' actions as a "bomb hoax" (or suggesting that the two men were "planting" "hoax devices"), authorities in Massachusetts in general and Boston in specific are inscribing motive onto an act that simply does not exist3. Through language, Berdovsky and Stevens are rendered guilty, and as the general population comes to know the events of January 31, 2007, as a "bomb hoax," our perception of Berdovsky and Stevens changes: freelance artists become collaborators, a ridiculous notion supported by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's belief that "Berdovsky was 'in the employ of other individuals' as part of the marketing campaign" (CNN). By dusting off that chestnut from the cold war ("in the employ of other individuals"), often used in conjunction with alleged espionage, an ominous enemy is invoked and the needle on the widespread-panic detector is pegged in the red4.
Boston has made itself look like one homogeneous fool: the "devices" (i.e. "ads") had been in place for almost two weeks prior to the "hoax," and nine other U.S. cities (including New York City and Los Angeles) had experienced a week or two of Ignignokt giving the finger as hard as he could without causing a major panic5.
In the days since 1-31-2007, the language has softened and the event is frequently referred to as a "bomb scare." With this language, Berdovsky and Stevens are largely let off the hook, while the government's reaction becomes the locus of the event. People were afraid that the ads were bombs, thus the event becomes a scare6.
Yet even with this change in reference, Berdovsky and Stevens are described as having conducted a "guerrilla marketing campaign." The term guerrilla (noun) signifies "a person who engages in irregular warfare especially as a member of an independent unit carrying out harassment and sabotage." While this phrase has been long used to describe unofficial marketing campaigns or even anti-advertising campaigns (think Obey, or Andre Has Posse), the term is reinscribed and the significations of guerrilla resonate as acts of terror, not acts of defiance or pop art.
How will this end? Likely, without asking those in public office or in the media to choose their words wisely. Turner Broadcasting has already pledged two million dollars in restitution to the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston (and considering that 2.6 mil bought 30 seconds of Super Bowl advertising air time, Turner Broadcasting is coming out light years ahead), but what about Berdovsky and Stevens? Will they be living in their own private Guantanamo without recourse?7 As a citizen of the culture of fear, I predict a grim end to our Lebowskian heroes.
Yet these two hapless hair-mongers, under the employ of the Leviathan TBS, have brought us to what is arguably the most significant crossroads we've encountered in the post-9/11 world. Can people learn that their own fear is not everyone else's problem? Can a prank ever be a prank again?
Or are we the caricatures of Americans that Ignignokt and Err lampoon: "You have deeply offended us and our god, and our god is a god of vengeance... and horror. Our god is an Indian that turns into a wolf. The wolfen will come for you with his razor."-Ignignokt (Aqua Teen Hunger Force).
1FYI, "hoax" is not an adjective.
2As a transitive verb, trick signifies "1 : to dress or adorn fancifully or ornately; 2 : to deceive by cunning or artifice." So, in the case of the first definition, Berdovsky and Stevens are guilty of a hoax as a trick: They tricked out light posts and other banal objects in the greater Boston area. But since we are not talking about an MTV-style show "Pimp My City," the second definition of trick seems most appropriate, and again this definition speaks to intent (which Berdovsky and Stevens did not have; after their press conference, once concludes that, likely, they intend very little as a matter of course).
3And let's not even mention the silly repetition of the term, sans scare quotes, by mainstream media outlets.
4It is a dark day when I come to defend an advertising campaign.
5Bostonians have a right to be wary of unexplained, ominous devices: Boston was affected by the tragedy on September 11th, 2001, more than any city besides New York; Bostonians were on the airplanes. Yet this history does not justify the lengths of overreaction, and it seems like the vehement rhetoric spewing from politicians is in reaction to becoming, however briefly, a national laughingstock. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley captured the insanity in this poignant quotation: "'[The Ignignokt ad] had a very sinister appearance,' Coakley told reporters. 'It had a battery behind it, and wiresa'" (CNN).
aThis on the same day we learn scientists have created Maxwell's Daemon--if we're scared of batteries and wires, how will we feel about a machine the size of a single atom ?
6Having been in Boston earlier in January, I had noticed large Ignignokt billboards looming over the city. One might suspect that billboards are no longer effective marketing tools because no one seemed to put two and two together.
7Apologies to the B-52's and Denis Johnson for the co-mingled pun.