A recent spate of bomb threats targeting colleges and universities has authorities wondering if the threats were connected to one another. Yet, one of the responses involved an instant of unintentional Arab-baiting that led to an apology later.
Last Friday, three days after the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, three universities evacuated their campuses following bomb threats. On Monday, Louisiana State University became the fourth in less than a week to receive an ominous warning.
The University of Texas at Austin was the first target. A self-proclaimed al-Qaeda member called the university at 8:35 a.m., claiming bombs would detonate within 90 minutes. An hour later, North Dakota State University received a threat about a bomb placed somewhere on the campus. While the Austin campus was not evacuated until an hour after the phone call, North Dakota administrators sent out an evacuation alerts minutes after receiving the call.
Ohio’s Hiram College, the last school threatened on Friday and the smallest so far, received an emailed threat that led to the evacuation of around 1,110 peopleon campus.
Despite the fact of the near-copycat nature of bomb threats on the same day, a Hiram College spokesperson told a local paper that he was unaware of a confirmed connection between the three incidents. A spokesperson from the FBI told the New York Times that the bureau will investigate any link between the bomb threats.
All three schools later re-opened after campus-wide sweeps detected no bombs.
Then the evacuation of Louisiana State’s students and faculty happened Monday morning after eleven o’ clock. Unlike the other cases, the threat came to a East Baton Rouge 911 dispatch center and not directly to the university. The caller claimed that three bombs were on the campus. After the call center relayed the threat to the university’s police force, the school was evacuated an hour later.
One student told The Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, that she thought the bomb threat was nothing to worry about.
“It was probably a student calling it in because they were trying to get out of an exam,” she said
Late Monday night, LSU students returned to campus.
Only one of the four bomb threats involved an alleged terrorist group member. LSU has not revealed any identifying information about the caller. However, that one case is telling.
When identifying the alleged al-Qaeda caller, a UT-Austin spokesperson reverted to ”Arab-baiting” when she told the Los Angeles Times a “male with a Middle Eastern accent” claimed to have place bombs all over the campus. A tersely-worded editorial in the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper, quotes the chair of the university’s Middle Eastern studies department:
There is no such thing as a ‘Middle Eastern accent…The various languages of the Middle East differ greatly, and there are no commonalities that join any of the accents when speakers of a number of those languages speak English.
It would be very difficult for someone who is not a highly trained linguist to identify an Arabic accent. A speaker from North Africa is going to sound very different from a speaker from Iraq, the [Persian] Gulf countries or Egypt, and not all speakers even of the same dialect will have the same accent in English.
As the editorial writers rightly argue, throwing out that a suspect spoke with “Middle Eastern accent” causes panic-driven responses fueled by fear-mongering: “If we are definitively told that the caller had a Middle Eastern accent, we automatically infer his ethnicity. We automatically infer his religion. We automatically infer his motive. We think we know the whole story.”
But we don’t know the whole story – yet. The investigation into these threats have only just begun, but the UT-Austin PR flub reveals that efforts at full-disclosure should be more thought out in situations already fraught with apprehension. Yes, the suspect in this case may not be a hoaxer but raising the specter that this rash of threats might be tied to the “Innocence of Muslim” backlash should have donned on some flak, not necessarily the brightest one. Or if not that, a consideration for the threats or outright violence that some people experience for simply “looking Middle Eastern.” If these two things had been considered by the UT-Austin police and PR team, apologies, such as the one by chief of UT’s police (“Looking back at it, yeah maybe we shouldn’t have used that”), would have been unnecessary.