How a Stupid Hoax Can Terrorize: “We have 21 souls on board, 20 in the water”

It was a horror. And it was happening in real time.

A yacht had exploded on Monday afternoon in large body of water off the Jersey shore known as the Gateway National Recreation area. While hundreds of rescuers scrambled to save the lives of those who had not been killed in the initial blast, communications from the fatally disabled vessel – as reported by the New York Times – continued to come in.

And the details were not good. Not good at all.

“We have 21 souls on board, 20 in the water,” a man can be heard saying in part of a radio call released by the Coast Guard on Tuesday. “I have three deceased on board, nine injured because of the explosion we’ve had. I’m in three feet of water on the bridge. I’m going to stay by the radio as long as I can before I have to go overboard.”

Virtually all  sea/rescue assets normally responsible for almost 700 square nautical miles — including planes, boats, a slew of local fire and rescue teams, and the full capacities of the US Coast Guard — were mobilized.

A man had survived, he was surrounded by bodies, and he would die without being located quickly.

Confession: Some of you may have the same iPhone police scanner app that I have, and riding on a bus back to New Jersey, I knew that I could use it listen to this dramatic rescue in real time.  It was amazing. I heard commanders establishing staging areas for the helicopters that were combing every square mile, I heard the roar of planes and helicopters landing and taking off, and I heard all the local rescue teams – normally responsible for their own often small communities, setting every other routine duty aside and joining the frenzied search. And I even heard some of those local community EMS crews being asked to respond to local emergencies to which they could not promptly respond because of the search for survivors. In fact, other communities did come to their aid and I have heard no evidence that communities were unable to respond to their own local emergencies, although we’ll learn a lot more in the next few days.

The tri-state area news media were all over the story. And we waited. Alive or dead?

Neither, it turns out.  Nobody died. Nobody was hurt. In fact, nobody was on a boat.

There was no boat.

It was a hoax, and a detailed and odious one at that. Exploiting the fact that they knew a rescue operation would be launched, whoever executed the hoax worded it in just the way they knew would set off a full-blown response.

The search for the perpetrators is continuing.

Here’s the reason I am telling you this story.

In the last decade we have come to understand the nature of terrorism more than we ever wanted to understand it. But in the process, we have tended to define it in a gradually more narrow way, focused on the ongoing response to the events of 9/11.

I would like to suggest that while a hoax like this one could hardly fit in a  category filled with car bombs, suicide airplane bombers or other similar acts, there are several similarities to point out;  similarities that underscore just how serious an offense such a hoax is.

Terrorism seeks – among other things – to sow psychological confusion and dislocation. It attempts to create a moment in which the serial onslaught of threats immobilizes the target’s ability to plan a response. Terror comes in the form of the powerlessness that the confusion – even momentarily – causes. And some terrorist acts initially present themselves as situations that lure some good person into danger by asking them to be a Good Samaritan.

Which leads to my point that yesterday’s hoax, which captured the attention of much of the eastern seaboard for several hours and could have led to either marine or aviation accidents/injuries/fatalities that are an unfortunate reality of a mass search and rescue operations, was a form of terrorism. And it was further magnified by digital media that spread the news of the fatalities with breakneck speed.

It manipulated our emotions. It sought to create chaos. It diverted substantial rescue elements away from local communities. And it messed with us in the most unethical and dishonest way of all: It came in the form of a voice who suggested he was near death and that he needed good people to risk their lives, find him, and save him from death.

They did. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t anything or anyone. And whether it’s even a distant cousin of terrorism, it plays with the better angels of our nature and deserves the most severe sanctions.

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