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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Caution is fine, but are we too wary?

On Sunday, I visited Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre sculpture park in the lower Hudson Valley.

Because we were planning on arriving around lunch, I filled my backpack with food — pizza, fruit, cookies. But as we neared the gate, I began to worry that I’d made a mistake.

“What if backpacks aren’t allowed?” I wondered. “What if they search my backpack and take it away?”

My fears were unfounded.

Backpacks are still permitted at Storm King, even in this post-Sept. 11/Boston Marathon-bombing world where an unattended backpack can inspire a police response and bring all activity to a screeching halt. Of course, the object doesn’t necessarily have to be a backpack. An unattended suitcase in downtown Albany inspired the following headline in the Times Union on Monday: “No bomb in luggage left on Albany street.”

These kinds of reports are fairly common and, viewed in isolation, easy to ignore. My reaction to such articles is usually something along the lines of “Wake me up when there is a bomb.”

But the bomb-less luggage article caught my eye, mainly because it came so soon after two separate incidents involving bomb-less backpacks resulted in evacuations and police investigations in Niskayuna.

In the first incident, a man admitted in June to leaving a backpack outside a store at Mohawk Commons, was arrested on a felony charge of first-degree placing a false bomb or hazardous substance and spent two weeks in jail before the charges were dropped.

The man, who later returned to claim his backpack, told police he left the bag outside because he didn’t want to bring it in the store with him. Prosecutors later determined that the man, 21-year-old Joshua Usher, did not intend to cause harm and that, other than the bag’s placement, which was observed by witnesses, there was no reason to believe it was a bomb.

In the second incident, which occurred last week, a backpack deposited in almost the same place prompted Niskayuna police to call in the state police bomb squad and evacuate nearby stores. Nobody came forward to claim the bag, and police say they are working to identify the owner of the
backpack and learn more about his or her intent.

I have no idea what the intentions of the backpack owner might have been.

But if I had to guess, I’d surmise that it was probably an ill-intentioned prankster who wanted to get under people’s skin by leaving a backpack in the same spot as Usher. But who knows?

Sometimes people just forget things, or they make a mistake, as Usher did, when he assumed he could set a backpack down and walk away without arousing suspicion or alarm. I seldom forget things, but if I happened to leave my backpack somewhere, I certainly wouldn’t come forward to claim it, knowing it might result in arrest and a stint in jail.

Whenever I fly, I see people who still haven’t gotten the memo that you can’t pack a full-size bottle of shampoo in your carry-on luggage. Maybe there are still people who are unaware that an unattended backpack will likely be regarded as a suspicious package, and phoned in to police.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why unattended items such as backpacks and luggage spur such an aggressive response. In the Boston Marathon bombing, backpacks concealed pressure-cooker bombs that killed three people and injured many others. The wisdom of the “better safe than sorry” philosophy is not lost on me.

But I do wonder whether some perspective is in order.

Should an unattended backpack result in arrest, $11,000 bail and jail time when bail proves unaffordable? Should objects such as bags and suitcases be regarded as nefarious until proven otherwise?

A quick Google search shows that bogus reports of suspicious packages are quite common.
They inspire headlines such as this one from Oklahoma City: “Police, fire crews give ‘all clear’ for ‘suspicious’ thermos in south OKC.” And this one from San Francisco: “Suspicious Package in Inner Sunset Turns Out To Be Empty Suitcase.” And this one out of Greensboro, North Carolina: “Suspicious package found on UNCG campus was a book.”

Since 9/11, we’ve been subjected to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, and the plethora of bogus suspicious-package reports made in the years since are the direct result of having this message drummed into our brains.

Nobody wants another Boston Marathon bombing, and there are times when calling the police is warranted.

But a backpack is almost always just a backpack. Just as a book is almost always just a book, and a thermos is almost always just a thermos.

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