Most of the immediate media reaction to the explosive devices that were mailed last week to prominent Democratic figures consisted of speculation about the identity and political leanings of the person who sent them, about whether the intention was to harm the recipients or to plant a “false flag” before the November elections, and about whether the incendiary political discourse of recent years played a role in fomenting the sending of the incendiary devices.
When a man was arrested on Erev Shabbos in connection to the crimes, it seemed likely that, as many had speculated, he had been politically motivated, and was angry at Democrats and news organizations that have been accused of unfairness to President Trump.
But there are dangerous people of many stripes out there, and what the events of past days can teach us, beyond the truism that words can be dangerous, is also that we are never safe from those with bad intentions. Explosives and other dangerous items are fairly easily assembled, and just as easily sent through the mail. While the devices in the news were thankfully found before they reached their targets, that owed much to the prominence of those citizens.
Even those of us who are not particularly prominent, though, are well advised to be cautious with packages that arrive in our mailboxes. We may not imagine that we have enemies but the world, including our country, suffers no lack of deranged and potentially dangerous people.
And using the mail to frighten or harm is hardly anything new.
Nearly a century ago, in 1919, 36 mail bombs targeting prominent people across the nation were intercepted by the U.S. postal service. In 1936, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a bomb hidden in a cigar box was not caught, and killed a man and his son.
President Harry Truman was the target of several intercepted letter bombs in 1947, according to his daughter, who revealed the fact only decades later.
More recently, Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, conducted a nationwide bomb campaign from 1978 until 1995 that killed three people and injured 23 others. In 2001, deadly anthrax spores were sent to news media and Democratic senators, killing five and infecting 17 others who survived.
Only this past March, a man dubbed the Austin Bomber conducted a three-week bombing spree that killed two people and terrorized that Texas city.
And just last week, the Justice Department announced the indictment of William Clyde Allen for mailing threatening letters containing plant material that could be used to make ricin, a deadly biological agent, to President Trump and other high-ranking federal officials.
The U.S. Postal Service and private delivery companies employ an array of security measures, including the use of X-rays and biohazard detecting technology, but officials warn that the sheer volume of mail that is sent and received daily makes it impossible to examine everything.
And in fact, while two packages addressed to former Vice President Joe Biden were intercepted at postal facilities, a pipe bomb misaddressed to former Attorney General Eric Holder made it far enough to be returned to its purported sender, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose name was on the return address.
And a courier hand-delivered one of the crude bombs to CNN’s New York offices.
While much communication that once took place through the postal service is now conducted electronically, the proliferation of shopping through the internet has brought about a large rise in the number of packages delivered to homes and businesses by the postal or other delivery services.
The odds are exceedingly small that any random package, particularly one arriving at a typical citizen’s doorstep, will contain explosives or other hazardous materials. But, at the same time, the ease with which bad people can learn how to prepare and send dangerous packages makes a modicum of caution on our part a wise choice.
There are measures that average citizens can take to protect themselves, like paying attention to packages they receive, and treating as suspicious those with unusual features, like excessive postage, homemade labels or misspellings.
But a clever criminal can do a good job of making a package seem legitimate, and so, taking the time to evaluate letters and packages we receive before opening them is worth the delay in discovering what has arrived.
It is likely that, in the wake of recent events, new safety measures will be put forth for U.S. postal service and private delivery companies. It will make sense to appraise those ideas. And if the security of the citizenry means that deliveries may be a bit slower, we should all be prepared to pay that small price for safety.