On Sunday, in an incident at the Port of Miami, three men of Middle Eastern origin were briefly arrested following an encounter at a checkpoint that included the failure of the driver to reveal that two additional men were in the truck. Charges were dropped against them today. Today, a smell resembling that of natural gas permeated Manhattan, prompting early concerns about a terror-related chemical attack, and overloading the city’s emergency communications system. Although the source of the odor has not yet been determined, officials are confident that the incident was not harmful and not related to terrorism. And then this afternoon, again at the Port of Miami, a pallet that was to be loaded on a cruise ship tested positive for plastic explosives; upon further examination, the pallet contained sprinkler system parts.
These three incidents were all headline stories on the cable news channels over the past 24 hours. Each incident clearly raised local anxieties during the span of time between awareness and resolution. And each incident served as a valuable exercise for the officials involved, forcing them to utilize the procedures and protocols that are applicable in the detection of and response to terrorist acts.
Overall, the responses seem to have been well-executed today, a tribute to the federal, state and local officials in Florida, New York, and New Jersey who were involved with these incidents. It’s true that the exact source of the New York “odor” has not yet been determined, but emergency management officials acted quickly to determine that it posed no imminent threat and encourage the general public to stay calm.
As long as we face threats to our security, these types of “false alarms” will occur with regularity. Such is the nature of our systems of prevention and detection that false alarms and false positives are inevitable in many circumstances. There’s always a risk that false alarms will lead to a “boy who cried wolf” complacency, but overall, such incidents are ultimately valuable as a tool to get people prepared for the real thing, in a way that even the most sophisticated TOPOFF exercise can’t match.