Pipe bombs renew the public's vigilance
As authorities in the Midwest investigate, residents open their mailboxes with care.
When five pipe bombs exploded mailboxes in rural Iowa and Illinois on Friday, there were no deaths. No demonstrations. But the world paid attention. And post-Sept. 11 America was reminded of a sobering lesson: When it comes to terrorism, no place is an island of security.
In fact, the rural United States may be a better platform right now than high-profile urban centers for terrorists to grab attention. The risks are lower and the publicity just as potent.
The silver lining, crime-experts say, is that the more vulnerable people feel, the more likely they are to fill a vital role in stopping terrorism.
"Law-enforcement and public agencies can't do it all by themselves," says Robert Friedmann, professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "They need the help of the community."
In the latest incidents, law-enforcement and postal authorities have asked for the public's help in tracking down the person or persons who are placing pipe bombs in rural mailboxes across the Midwest.
On Friday, mailbox bombs injured four postal workers and two residents in Illinois and Iowa. In all, residents and authorities found eight such bombs planted in a swath of five Iowa counties roughly between Dubuque and Davenport, as well as three adjoining counties in northwest Illinois.
Authorities say some of the bombs detonated when mailboxes were opened. Others went off when they were moved. None of the injuries was life-threatening.
Then on Saturday, six more bombs were discovered in mailboxes dispersed across the southeastern quarter of Nebraska, some 350 miles away. Many, if not all, of the bombs contained a note.
"If the government controls what you want to do they control what you can do," the note read in part. "I'm obtaining your attention in the only way I can.... If I could, I would change only one person, unfortunately the resources are not accessible. It seems killing a single famous person would get the same media attention as killing numerous un-famous humans."
The note also warned: "More 'attention getters' are on the way."
Authorities are investigating the case as domestic terrorism. The US Postal Inspection Service has joined forces with the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and state and local law enforcement to pursue leads.
Authorities say they don't yet know whether the acts were the work of one person or several. Nor is it clear exactly what the motive is, besides attracting attention.
Unfortunately, gaining attention is easy these days, given the nation's heightened sensitivity to terrorism and the world's ability to instantly communicate, even about events in remote locations.
"A lot of symbolism doesn't need a place," says Joseph Donnermeyer, a rural sociology professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. "An event can happen anywhere.... For that pipe-bomb fellow, any mailbox would have done."
Still, the rural US may provide some advantages to terrorists, crime-experts say.
"There's fewer people around," says Mark Small, a research professor with the National Center on Rural Justice and Crime Prevention at Clemson University in South Carolina. "There's less competition for attention. In urban areas, there's so much crime and violence that takes place on a daily basis, a mail bombing I don't think would garner that much attention."
It certainly got the attention of residents in Morrison, Ill. According to press reports, postal carrier Marilyn Dolieslager was delivering telephone books when she opened a mailbox that exploded.
The blast injured her face and arm, and removed part of her thumb. But she credited the telephone books with saving her life.
In Tipton, Iowa, Delores Werling reportedly was sent to an emergency room with shrapnel in her arms, hands, and face after unwittingly reaching for a pipe bomb in her mailbox.
If such incidents increase people's sense of vulnerability, they also prompt better preparedness, rural-crime experts say.
"It doesn't hurt to worry about and examine whether you're capable of responding to an incident of terrorism," says Professor Donnermeyer of Ohio State University. "You improve all your first-responder services. You increase your ability to collaborate with your fellow first-responders."
And the public gets involved, he adds.
Already, postal authorities have halted mail delivery to rural-type mailboxes in some areas and warned residents across the Midwest to be careful opening their mailboxes.
Their recommendation: Tape the mailbox open so no suspicious items will be concealed inside. If patrons do find something suspicious, they should not touch it. Instead, they should call local police or the Postal Inspection Service in St. Louis.
Postal carriers and the public may have gotten the message. Of the six pipe bombs found Saturday in Nebraska, none exploded and no one was injured.