November 14, 2004

Evil Hobbies & Jumpy People Don't Mix

I’m getting the feeling that geocaching is the new D&D. Perhaps geocachers are on the cusp of being called a terrorist organization and plopped right smack-dab into the axis of evil.

Bomb scare turns out to be part of Internet game

Yep, this is a story about how a guy in Indiana was retrieving a geocache, someone saw him replace it, and the police were called because, naturally when you see someone place a container somewhere in Indiana, you assume it is a bomb.

We’ve been told over and over again to “report any suspicious behavior” and I think it is making people a little paranoid. To be fair toward law enforcement, they were doing their job. Once they’re called into this situation, they don’t know what’s going on. If they’re not familiar with the sport, all they know they’re dealing with is some odd behavior.

Legal, Harmless, Misunderstood

According to discussions I’ve read on geocacher forums, the guy who retrieved the cache returned to the scene (that’s how they caught him) and when he didn’t approach any closer to the gathering crowd and law enforcement, somehow they took this as a sign he was nefarious.

The guy had 4 kids under 9 years old in his car and after talking to police he offered to retrieve the cache and show them it was harmless. After talking to him they decided, instead to shoot the container to see if it would blow up.

The fellow who hid the cache had gotten permission from the land owner, but apparently the owner was not available at the time the “suspicious container” was reported. In many ways, this is just a case of people overreacting, and perhaps says something about choosing a location for a cache. There are lessons to be learned about busy areas, urban areas, informing local law enforcement about your hobby, and paranoia.


But there is another aspect of this story that bugs me at the moment. It’s the aspect where I have a hobby that is completely harmless, is in fact beneficial in a number of ways (CITOing, exercise, using and therefore valuing our natural resources, teaching about the outdoors, navigation and such). Regardless of the innocence and benefit of the activity, ignorant folks are suddenly fearful of it. And the press, eager for a sensational story, pounce.

Check out that Star Press article. I’ll highlight some quotes and give my responses.

A call came in at 2:12 p.m. saying that someone had seen an unknown person place a suspicious box

The only thing “suspicious box” serves to do is make the situation seem less silly. The box itself is not suspicious, and if it were then a description of the box would be in order. What, exactly, does a suspicious box look like? We should know so we can look out for them. No, the box wasn’t really suspicious. It was a box in an unexpected location. There is a difference.

After three nervous hours, and after a bomb squad member fired a .50-caliber round into the suspicious black box, police declared the area to be safe again.

Actually, they fired a special bomb-disrupting round designed to knock the sense out of the thing. The intent is to knock wires loose, if there are wires. And, I believe, the round also floods the thing with water.

Players can then log on, find the coordinates and go looking for the black box.

What the heck is a “black box?” Sounds more mysterious than the truth. I guess it would have made the incident sound even more silly if the game had been described thusly: “Players can then log on, find the coordinates and go looking for the tupperware container, old plastic pickle jug or small Igloo cooler.” Ooo! Creepy!

He also said players never know the real names of people stashing the boxes or even who else is playing.

I know several players who were already friends of mine, and since starting geocaching I’ve met new folks, and I know their names. I know people who use their real name as their handle. We never know the names? We never know who is playing? Sensationalism.

The description of Cook (the geocacher) comes off as very favorable. But at this point in the piece they seem to be going for “poor, misguided guy caught up in a bad activity.”

The piece ends with a great quote:

“People have to understand that I’ve been to three FBI and CIA briefings in the last two weeks, getting briefed on terrorists and terrorism,” Mahan said. “They need to find another game.”

We have to understand that, why? So we can understand the overreaction? And the final suggestion floored me. Because of unfounded paranoia and ignorance, geocachers need to find another game.

I guess we’re lucky the guy hadn’t been to two weeks of gang violence briefings. Then he would be chasing down wandering groups of suspicious-looking youths with round, high-pressure inflated projectiles.

The truth is, any activity can be subverted by terrorism. A terrorist could suicide-bomb and sporting event where people congregate in numbers. Someone could case a neighborhood by pretending to be a runner or cyclist. Heck, a guy could get dressed up in a uniform and walk right up to your house and leave a dangerous package there. Does that mean we need to get rid of the US Postal Service, UPS and FedEx?

I’ll be chalk the sheriff’s comment to having had a bad day and made to look silly, but it is unfortunate it made it into print.

Inaccurate Perception

So, the next year will probably give us an indication of whether geocachers are thought of as a shadowy group of individuals or people who like to enjoy the outdoors and solve puzzles.

D&D got a bad name that remains in the minds of some unimaginative people to this day. Or, perhaps they were overly-imaginative.

In any case, it’s clear that a combination of education about geocaching and a little less paranoia on everyone’s part is called for.

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Posted by James at November 14, 2004 2:00 PM
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The D&D thing is a little different. Christians are against D&D and any form of fantasy because they find it blasphemous to suggest that humans could control magic. They really feel that D&D is a way to train people to not believe in God and prey for Him to solve your problems, but to try to use magic which is always evil because it breaks the first commandment.

Granted, I think these people are batshit loony, but that's not the point.

It was - I think - the already existing opposition to magic, fantasy, the occult, etc among Christians that gave rise to the irrational rumors about stabbing people in sewers, etc. Books and movies warning about the evils of D&D found an already receptive audience.

Posted by: David Grenier at November 14, 2004 4:25 PM

Isn't there something about a person's fantasy life that makes him or her *less* likely to do these things in real life? By having an outlet and all that?

Posted by: Mike at November 14, 2004 6:39 PM

David, I think those are the people who are still opposed to D&D (and Harry Potter and the like).

But back in the early 80's we were treated to the opinion that D&D would drive us insane and lead us to go on wild killing sprees with halberds, pikes and claymores by people who wouldn't know a halberd, pike or claymore if it cleaved them in twain.

'member the TOm Hanks made-for-TV movie "Mazes and Monsters" based on Rona Jaffe's book? It wasn't born from reliigous wingnuttery. It was "oh no! Our kids are going to get lost in fantasy!"

If Mystic Realms had existed back then, these same folks would have had heart attacks.

Posted by: James at November 14, 2004 9:16 PM

I'd treat these stories the same way I treated the D&D bashers. Ignore them. Don't waste your time or energy worrying about it. They haven't a clue how many people are doing it and don't care. They've just found something new that they can expose and complain about.

Posted by: B.O.B.(bob) at November 15, 2004 9:17 AM

"...ignorant folks are suddenly fearful of it. And the press, eager for a sensational story, pounce."

You could be talking about stem cell research here.

People fear what they don't understand. We've been fed a diet of fear and trepidation for 3.5 years, so I would expect as much.

As Bob said, ignore these idiots. They want to believe what they want to believe, so let 'em.

These people are indeed kin of those whose only concept of D&D came from the tremendously awful 1982 movie "Mazes and Monsters," which I am _sure_ Tom Hanks would like to expunge from his memory.

The rants about this horrendous movie on IMBD are pretty good.

Posted by: Patti M. at November 15, 2004 9:34 AM

Maybe Mahan needs to find a new profession. (That was the most coherent comment I could come up with.)

Posted by: Julie at November 15, 2004 10:20 AM

“People have to understand that I’ve been to three FBI and CIA briefings in the last two weeks, getting briefed on terrorists and terrorism,” Mahan said.

And he was just itchin' to use his new-found skills!

Down, boy. Part of knowing what to do is being able to tell the difference between and real and a perceived threat.

Posted by: Patti M. at November 15, 2004 10:31 AM

Speaking of D&D, there's an ode to the game on the Op Ed page of the Boston Globe. Those of you lucky enough to see the actual paper will find it is accompanied by a nice picture of many D20s.

Here's the link:

Be sure to read the last line of this well-written piece.

Posted by: Patti M. at November 15, 2004 1:25 PM

I haven't been geocaching much, but I'm trying to imagine why anyone would plant a bomb in any of the out-of-the-way locations that I've visited when caching with James and the girls. They might kill a squirrel, if they get lucky. I didn't read the original story James points to -- maybe this one was more out in the open. But don't folks usually go for the big splash, or at the very least, something somebody will pick up, unibomber style?

On the D&D/Harry Potter topic, there are some born-again Christians who live across from a friend of mine. Their daughter isn't allowed to watch Harry Potter. But she *can* watch LOTR.

ROTFL. Thought that was a cute similarity. We don't want our eleven-year-old to see magic, but disgusting violence and... wait a minute.. magic, um, that's okay. And they're homeschoolers. Yeah, those kids will be fine. The three-year-old doesn't even talk.

Posted by: Maggie at November 15, 2004 5:04 PM

I bet she could talk if she wanted to. She just doesn't want to talk to her family. :)

Posted by: Julie at November 15, 2004 6:27 PM

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