Bomb threats call for facts

At the height of Friday’s bomb scare, University of Texas Police Department spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon issued an official statement: “At 8:35 a.m. the University received a call from a male with a Middle Eastern accent claiming to have placed bombs all over campus. He said he was with Al Qaeda [sic] and these bombs would go off in 90 minutes.President Powers was notified and it was decided to evacuate all of the buildings out of an abundance of caution.”

The detail about the “Middle Eastern accent” drew attention because it was one of the few released about the caller’s identity. According to Weldon and UTPD Chief Robert Dahlstrom, the determination that the caller had a “Middle Eastern accent” was made solely by the person who answered the original call. No experts were consulted. Speculative nature was one of numerous reasons not to include the descriptor in “the facts” reported to the public, and no good reasons to have mentioned it are apparent. Its inclusion didn’t help bring the students on campus to safety, and it didn’t help anyone identify the caller. Instead, the gratuitous reference encouraged more speculation.

It’s also worth noting that the identification of a “Middle Eastern” accent is far more difficult than most assume, as it doesn’t actually exist. “There is no such thing as a ‘Middle Eastern accent,’” says associate professor Kristen Brustad, Chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. “The various languages of the Middle East differ greatly, and there are no commonalities that join any of the accents when speakers of a number of those languages speak English.”

Even narrowing the language down to Arabic doesn’t ensure accuracy. “It would be very difficult for someone who is not a highly trained linguist to identify an Arabic accent,” Brustad said. “A speaker from North Africa is going to sound very different from a speaker from Iraq, the [Persian] Gulf countries or Egypt, and not all speakers even of the same dialect will have the same accent in English.” It makes sense for a witness’ guess about the caller’s accent to be taken into account by those evaluating the credibility of the threat, but releasing that uneducated guess to the general public — and calling it fact — constitutes spreading misinformation. This alone would be bad enough, without considering the consequences.

Releasing such a statement advances a pre-conceived narrative before any real facts arrive to back it up. If we are definitively told that the caller had a Middle Eastern accent, we automatically infer his ethnicity. We automatically infer his religion. We automatically infer his motive. We think we know the whole story.

“It’s easy to jump to conclusions in an atmosphere like this before they’re warranted,” Brustad said. “It wouldn’t be the first time that that had happened.” For instance, after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the public’s initial assumption was that the bombers were Middle Eastern Islamic extremists, when that was not the case.

As the public information officer for UTPD, Weldon says her responsibility is to “just release as much information as [Dahlstrom] provided to [her].” But Weldon’s job is more than that of stenographer. She chooses what information will best inform the public. In an interview with the Texan, Weldon was unable to explain what purpose the “Middle Eastern accent” detail served, beyond being in the interest of “greater transparency.”

UTPD was careless to release the detail, and the reaction was ugly.

But, Chief Dahlstrom assured the public, “If [the statement] offends the Middle Eastern culture or those students that are here, there was no intent for that.” So members of the clumsily defined “Middle Eastern culture” should presumably rest easy.

Unfortunately, the bigger problem is not offensiveness but the incitement of unfounded suspicion. We, the general public, can do nothing useful knowing how one person perceived the caller’s accent. Making an effort for greater transparency is all well and good, but calling speculation fact does no good and a great deal of harm.

“Looking back at it, yeah maybe we shouldn’t have used that [“Middle Eastern accent”] but I can’t change that,” Dahlstrom said. “It’s out and we live with it, we look forward.” There is one thing they can do — learn from their mistake and not repeat it.