Thursday, August 30, 2007


Flour power

If you strew flour in public, you could be arrested and charged with a felony:

Daniel Salchow and his sister, Dorothee, planned to spend a pleasant afternoon marking a trail for fellow members of their offbeat running and drinking club. Instead, they wound up in police custody after their clue of choice — flour — set off a bioterrorism scare and forced hundreds of people to evacuate an Ikea furniture store on Thursday.


Dr. Salchow, a New Haven ophthalmologist, and his sister, who is visiting from Hamburg, Germany, were charged with first-degree breach of peace, a felony.

First-degree breach of peace? Oh, please! “First-degree” charges are usually reserved for cases where the intent was to cause harm. It’s pretty clear that that’s not true in this situation.

This relates to a number of other cases that I recall, such as...

  • ...the flashing-light boxes in Boston & Cambridge, which alarmed officials and brought out the bomb squads.
  • ...the guy who wasn’t allowed to board a plane until he changed his t-shirt, because the shirt had Arabic writing that alarmed fellow passengers.
  • ...the guy who was detained and questioned — and missed his flight — because he’d been “speaking a foreign language” on his cell phone in the waiting area, which alarmed some other passengers.

I understand that some people are on edge. I understand that some people think that “we can’t be too careful.” But that’s just not true; the fact is that we can be “too” careful. We have to strike a balance between being duly vigilant and being scared of our collective shadow.

The Ikea store was closed down for a while and there was “a massive response from the New Haven police and authorities from surrounding towns,” and the authorities want the Salchow siblings to pay for that:

Jessica Mayorga, a spokeswoman for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said the city planned to seek restitution from the Salchows, and will meet Monday to decide how much.
Is every citizen now responsible for every overreaction by law-enforcement officials? If someone decides that your behaviour, which you fully believe to be innocuous, is “suspicious”, must you now expect to pay the expenses for them to close down the area and send in the SWAT team? Something like “aggravated mischief” is one thing, where there’s intent to cause trouble. You play around like that, sure, you take the consequences. But the burden has to be on the authorities to prove that their response was reasonable and that you should have anticipated that.

And the bar they must vault over to do that has to be a high one. If it’s not, this is another insidious way of taking away civil liberties and moving just a little closer to being a police state.

[Hat tip to EKR at Educated Guesswork.]


Maggie said...

Hmmm, well, I guess I'm glad that Boston isn't the only place totally overreacting to silly stuff. Or maybe I'm not glad -- but less embarrassed. OTOH, if people had already freaked out over trails of flour, these people really should've known better. I'm sure it's easier than chalk, though. Do they drag the chalk for the whole four miles? Yikes.

I used to have nightmares about races that had weird courses that went through buildings, up and down stairs, through rooms... I haven't raced in several years, and the nightmares have stopped! This sounds like a cool group, though... a fun idea. (Except for the beer... not my idea of how to rehydrate, but I know I'm weird.)

Barry Leiba said...

«if people had already freaked out over trails of flour, these people really should've known better.»

Well, that's what Ms Mayorga said, but the NYT article cites incidents in North Carolina and Mississippi five years ago. It's not clear whether these people knew about them, or should have.