MEMBERS ONLY: The Great Boston Mooninites Panic of 2007 Now Feels Like a Warning

by Chez Pazienza

It started before it actually started. In early January of 2007, a local Boston artist began hanging signs around town as part of a guerilla ad campaign for the upcoming Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. The show the movie was based on was already a big hit within the Cartoon Network’s adventurous “Adult Swim” programming block, and given the spirit of the show — surreal and absurdist to an almost inexpressible degree — it was obvious that the best way to promote the film to its target audience was to slyly reference ATHF in ways only fans would understand. And so, this artist, who’d been contracted by the movie’s marketing arm, went to work. He put 40 small, colorful, self-contained LED displays in various parts of Boston, each with an image of one of two Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters: Ignignokt or Err, both “aliens” that looked like pixels from old 4-bit video games. Conforming to the nihilistic personalities of the alien duo, known on the show as the Mooninites, both images were of the characters with their middle fingers raised high. 

For weeks, the Mooninites looked out over Boston from their perches and it can be assumed that only the ATHF viewers they were directed at noticed or cared. All that changed, though, on the morning of January 31st of 2007, when a commuter noticed one of the small signs underneath a highway overpass near a train station — and everybody panicked. A call was quickly made to the Boston Police Department, who dispatched the bomb squad to detonate the “device.” The city went into a kind of frenzy as police fanned out across town to find more of the signs, confused as to exactly what they were. Granted, according to The Boston Globe, the BPD was on alert due to possible terrorist threats in other cities and at least one threat of a pipe bomb somewhere in Boston, but as the hours and even days went on and the reality of what was happening began making its way across cable news and the internet, fans of ATHF and those simply up on their pop culture were having a good laugh at the spectacle of Boston turning itself inside out over some cartoon aliens.

“Now we know what it takes to bring the city of Boston to its knees,” declared an op-ed in the L.A. Times. “A bunch of Lite-Brites, some batteries and a couple of weeks for the citizenry to notice them.”

The artist and an accomplice were arrested and in keeping with the juvenile lunacy of the entire thing, the news conference with the two consisted of them deflecting any question from reporters not related to “haircuts of the 70s.” It became legendary pretty much instantly. The fallout from those in power, however, people who refused to admit that they’d simply gotten a joke wrong and that no one was actually trying to cause a panic — there was no crime committed and nobody could’ve foreseen the authorities losing their minds over something this ridiculous — was very, very real. Rep. Edward J. Markey howled about how the culprits and the ad campaign were responsible for, “Scaring an entire region… and forcing first responders to spend 12 hours chasing down trinkets instead of terrorists.” Mayor Thomas Menino also lashed out at the PR stunt and, astonishingly, Sen. Edward Kennedy, introduced legislation in response to it called the Terrorist Hoax Improvement Acts of 2007 to the Senate. The problem, of course, again, was that the Mooninites ad campaign wasn’t a hoax. It was — an ad campaign.

Eventually, Turner Broadcasting apologized to the city of Boston and paid it back fully for its own stupidity. The whole thing is now nothing more than a memory and a Wikipedia page.

It’s important, though, to consider exactly why a bunch of Lite-Brites with images of aliens giving the finger could cause a completely embarrassing multi-day meltdown on the part of so many seemingly intelligent adults. Needless to say, it all has to do with when this happened. Ten years ago. Right smack in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term. The Bush administration had managed to milk that second four years out of America by promising he would keep it safe from various threats real and imagined, or at the very least heavily exaggerated, and the only way he and his awful ilk could win on that promise was to scare the living hell out of everyone in America. We were a nation chasing its own shadow, living in a perpetual orange-alert hell where, we were warned, the terrorist threat was omnipresent and always lurking right around the corner (were we not constantly vigilant). The political mood of the nation was a powder-keg. People were exhausted and afraid. 

Thinking about this now, it’s even less funny than police and political leaders seemed to think it was back then. Granted, it was a stupid waste of time and money on the part of the Boston authorities when a quick scan of the internet or a question posed to the right person would’ve ended the whole thing in a matter of minutes. Now, however, it exists as a shameful indictment not of the people behind the ad campaign but of those who made this country feel like a prison for so long — the ones who stoked our fears for their own benefit and continued to do so until they were finally, mercifully driven from power and into historical ignominy. That something as absurd as the Mooninite panic was allowed to happen and was touted by authorities as proof of their quick response to a threat and the need for a crackdown on people who hadn’t done anything wrong spoke volumes about the Bush years. 

Here’s the thing, though: What we’re living through right now is going to be even worse. It’s going to put the Bush era to a shame it hasn’t yet known, which is really saying something. What made the Bush administration so insidious was its combination of incompetence and treachery, and it would be almost impossible to argue with the fact that Donald Trump and the people he’s surrounded himself with are incompetent and treacherous to a depth not known even by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. The latter group used a terrorist attack to consolidate power and justify a state of perpetual paranoia that led to human rights abuses and un-American policy. Imagine, just from what we’ve seen already, what’s to come during the Trump administration even if his presidency is miraculously free from the test of an attack on our homeland. Now, imagine what happens the second that al Qaeda or ISIS — who already regard Trump as a useful tool whose overreaction will do more damage to America than any initial attack — actually does hit us. Imagine the kind of fear and hostility Trump and his minions will sow throughout the country and around the world.

There will come a time, almost certainly, should we allow this administration to stand, that something as harmless and humorous as the Mooninites and the trouble they caused will seem like the good, old days. Trump is one of the most humor-deprived people on the planet, a man whose worst fear is being made a fool of, a man whose resting face is an angry scowl. Do you think he’d tolerate something as ridiculous as a “hoax” that wasn’t really a hoax but was instead meant all in good fun? Do you think the climate he’s going to create nationwide would simply laugh off two kids making jokes about 70s haircuts as they defied the near-martial crackdown on sanity that would be part of a Trump response to a terrorist threat, again, real or imagined? Do you think Trump and his terrifying handler Steve Bannon have, if nothing else, learned from the Bush years that the easiest way to concentrate power is through public fear?

Ten years ago, the Boston Mooninites panic was a laughing matter, no matter what the authority figures associated with it would have you believe. The next one? The one that happens under Donald Trump’s presidency? That almost certainly won’t be. That will be terrifying.