On Feb. 13, 2012, at approximately 6:20 p.m., the Chevron Science Center at the University of Pittsburgh was evacuated. A student found a threat scribbled in felt pen on the wall of a women’s restroom claiming a bomb would detonate at 8:29 that evening. The University of Pittsburgh police department swept the building and, finding no explosive device, reopened the building to the public at 9:30 p.m.
Less than a month later, on March 8, a gunman opened fire at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the university’s medical center, killing one and wounding seven before being shot down by University Police. Six days later, the university received its second bomb threat, this time targeting the iconic Cathedral of Learning. The University Police again responded with a full evacuation and a clean sweep of the building. No explosive device was found.
Over the next two weeks, the university would receive four more bomb threats, three at the Cathedral and one more at Chevron. On March 30, after receiving a seventh total bomb threat and fifth at the Cathedral, the university offered a $10,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest. On April 2, after two more threats, the university upped the offer to $50,000. The next day alone, the university was targeted for five new bomb threats in five new buildings.
It would be the start of three of the longest weeks in the university’s history.
On May 26, 1978, Northwestern professor Buckley Crist received an anonymous package at the Technological Institute. Responding officer Terry Marker opened the package, which according to an incident report retrieved from the University Archives, exploded “like a firecracker.” Neither Crist nor Marker were seriously wounded in the blast.
A second package in Tech exploded a year later, this time in a cigar box opened by John G. Harris, a graduate student who suffered minor burns on his hands.
The two incidents were investigated by the university but largely forgotten until the mid 1990s, when new developments revealed the two events were in reality the first attempted attacks of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski’s alias refers to his propensity to target universities and centers of learning in his bombings. Kaczynski would go on to kill three and injure 23 in his attacks, eluding authorities for almost twenty years until his capture in 1996.
During the first go-around, the Unabomber case was complicated by the fact that, during the late 1970s, Northwestern was “a hotbed of political inactivity,” according to a 1995 New York Times article. The attacks seemingly came out of the blue.
The responding FBI agents questioned students on whether or not they played the hot, new board game Dungeons & Dragons, not whether or not they were Neo-Nazis. Even after two bombs went off, there was a sense on the campus that they were more-or-less pranks, blips on a radar screen designed to weed out the actual threats to the university.
The authorities believed their perpetrator was a student who had gotten too invested in his fantasy world and lost sight of the real world around him, a board game precursor to the argument that violent video games are responsible for today’s violent crimes. Only in hindsight did the original two bombings begin to make sense.
Anthony’s inflection is calm and collected over Skype, requiring an extra three seconds at the end of each question to formulate an answer he’s comfortable with. Anthony worked as a moderator for the blog stopthepittbombthreats.blogspot.com, which as of May 21 had accumulated over 850,000 page views. His name has been withheld as a protection against possible retaliation from the Threateners, as the group calls themselves, who have not been caught.
Anthony, a 2010 Pitt alum and current graduate student in the Pittsburgh area, joined the blog as moderator soon after the threats began to escalate. A ticker on the side kept track of the number of threats, up to 145 and holding steady since April 21. The blog tracks each individual bomb threat with a timestamp and location map and posted frequent analyses whenever new information was made public.
“I basically took it personally,” Anthony explained. “I loved Pitt. I’m a third generation Pitt graduate. This isn’t just an institution they’re attacking but my friends and family, and I figured if I can help out, even if it’s just to help moderate the community, then what the heck, I might as well chip in. I think everyone tried to chip in in their own way.”
The University of Pittsburgh students, faculty and administrators were prisoners to empty threats for the better part of a month.
“A terrorism expert was quoted in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that ‘threateners don’t bomb and bombers don’t threaten,’” Anthony said. “I never thought that anybody would do anything, but there was always that thought in the back of your mind that you don’t know what you’re dealing with here, you don’t know their greater plan.”
This case is complicated by the fact that no bomb ever actually detonated on the Pittsburgh campus, explained Don Catherall, a professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical sciences in Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The former marine and Vietnam veteran focuses on the effects of trauma in his personal practice.
“These students have learned that they come out okay to a threat, but they have not learned that they can survive the bombing itself. They become more apathetic because they quit taking the threats to be as real or as serious,” he said. “What they lack is the experience of surviving a trauma. All they have survived is the threat of a trauma that has not materialized.” And after all, anybody can survive something that never ends up happening.
Many students never did take the threats seriously; or if they did, they stopped somewhere after being evacuated from their dorms for the tenth time. Young adults of today’s world are accustomed to shrugging off chaos, working through the entropy of a post-9/11 world.
“I am a post-Columbine, post-9/11 person,” Anthony said. “Growing up, there were always bomb threats in my high school, there were always threats in college. They have always been.”
The threats, coupled with the very real fatal shooting at Western Psych on March 8, represent a trend in domestic terrorism shifting toward college campuses.
On Jan. 27, 2010, a gunman was reported in the Rubloff building on Northwestern’s law school campus. The search turned up empty and nobody was hurt, but student phones were abuzz with Emergency Notification System texts and calls as the university gathered more information.
Such close calls, however, are the minority. The 1991 University of Iowa shooting, painfully and beautifully documented in Joanne Beard’s essay ”The Fourth State of Matter.” The 2008 self-immolation at the University of Washington. The Virginia Tech massacre. Oikos University just last month. The Northern Illinois University shooting in 2008, a mere 100 minutes west of Northwestern.
The Threateners: a timeline
Feb. 13, 2012: First bomb threat
March 8, 2012: Western Psych shooting
March 14, 2012: Second bomb threat
March 30, 2012: $10,000 reward offered
April 2, 2012: $50,000 reward offered
April 20, 2012: Threateners mail letter
April 21, 2012: University rescinds reward
April 21, 2012: Final (145th) bomb threat
Aprol 29, 2012: University of Pittsburgh commencement
The loss of the university as a safe zone, Catherall said, is just an unfortunate part of living in the 21st century. “The campus has previously felt like a sanctuary from a lot of the frightening things that occur in the world at large. And now that sanctuary has been punctured. The idea of a safe zone is ultimately an illusion, but having illusions of safety can allow us to function in some pretty frightening situations.” When pressed, Catherall added solemnly that it can take years for trauma victims to reincorporate the place of trauma as a sanctuary. Some victims, he added, will never be able to.
“With 9/11, this happened to the whole country,” Catherall said. "Probably the majority of Americans actually had the illusion that they were safe from terrorism in this country, because we really hadn’t dealt with much. When it comes from an outsider, it reinforces the bonds that keep the group going. When it’s somebody within the group, I think it’s more disruptive to our bonds.” And nothing’s more “within the group” than students targeting other students.
Being a student in America, being a young American citizen, necessitates a level of hardening previous generations have not had to process in the same manner. This student generation is arguably the last to remember true peacetime, not mere ceasefires between wars but a true and lasting peace. That American students are constant targets is a shame; that American students may also be the prankers and The Threateners themselves, that they have grown so comfortable with outside threats that they are able to internalize them and become Threateners themselves, is the truest measure of the loss of American youth and idealism.
As the threats continued to escalate, The Threateners sent a letter to both Mark Nordenberg, Chancellor of the University, and the Pitt News student newspaper on Friday, April 20. The letter stated The Threateners began their actions when Nordenberg offered a “bounty for some young kid who’d pranked the university,” echoing the faulty rhetoric and Dungeons & Dragons questioning of the early Unabomber investigations. On Saturday, April 21, the university rescinded its reward, and as of May 21, there have been no new threats.
The Threateners, however, have eluded arrest. “I think closure is a big deal,” Catherall said. “If you find a crime victim who was assaulted by somebody, they don’t tend to feel completely safe until that individual that assaulted them has been caught and put behind bars.”
There is a fear of a failure in the justice system, a misplaced faith in what some students may now perceive as an inept police force, unable to catch a handful of kids with computers sending anonymous emails. Some students have grown apathetic and disillusioned. There is a fear these students will take these feelings with them through commencement and into the real world, their most impressionable and formative years lost to a vigilante prankster.
Today’s generation is not used to delayed gratification or punishment which, in cases like these, overlap in dangerous ways. Today’s students have grown up with the luxury of being able to pair names to crimes with the belief that a just punishment is forthcoming; the age of the 20-year-manhunt for the Unabomber is long past. And yet, as of May 8, the University has officially handed the ongoing investigation over to the FBI and is seemingly trying to move past the events and prepare for the next academic year. There is a fear among Pitt students that their university has simply given up on the case as Northwestern did in the 1970s, opting instead to practice a collective amnesia and hope in time that the FBI finds a culprit, as they eventually discovered Kaczynski.
On April 24, three days after the final threat, Pitt’s Executive Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Jerome Cochran released an official statement detailing revised commencement guidelines and regulations. Added to the graduation ritual this year were bag searches, pat downs and other crowd-monitoring behavior. Students were advised to bring only their cap and gown and leave unnecessary bags and items in their apartments – a commonly understood and unspoken piece of advice that, in the tentative calm after the threats, can no longer remain unspoken.
On the afternoon of Sunday, April 29, the University of Pittsburgh celebrated its 225th commencement inside the Petersen Events Center, home of the men's and women’s basketball teams, where students spent sleepless nights on university-supplied cots and hammocks in the screened-and-cleared arena.
The Threateners, it appears, are men and women of their words. There have been no new threats since the university rescinded its $50,000 reward on April 21.
“We were all threatened,” Anthony explained. “We all felt like our institution, our community, even our way of life, because Pittsburgh is the idea, the sports, the culture, so people just felt unified in being attacked. That brought us all together.”
For three weeks, a school of nearly 20,000 undergraduates was held hostage by The Threateners, a group of one or two or maybe even 5 or ten students who thought it would be funny to pull a prank on the university. The police are unsure of who they were and how many they were, and there is a chance they will never be caught. But at the same time there are now nearly 20,000 bright-eyed young men and women who are devoted to securing a safer future for their progeny.
“There’s no stopping us,” Anthony said, explaining the blog’s powerful interactions with and contributions to the public before signing off. There’s no stopping us.