Sensational Media Missed the Most Important Point in Kiera Wilmot Story

I got in trouble and was threatened with expulsion from high school  for doing something right, not something wrong; what I wrote was good, proper journalism (see preceding post). There were no legitimate grounds for a lawsuit; that was an attempt at intimidation, which is why it backfired on the franchise owner and the corporation, not just because I was a sympathetic figure. I did nothing illegal or unethical to get in trouble; I violated no school policy.  So it was both unfair and inappropriate that I was threatened with expulsion.

Kiera Wilmot  DID  do something dangerous, and illegal.  How dangerous, and how and why it was illegal, and merited a potential felony charge, has NOT been properly reported.  As a result of what she did, a prosecutor has been tarred unfairly with being a racist, and she is being treated differently and unfairly preferentially, compared to others who have been arrested for doing the same thing.

The Media, the Press, the blogosphere, has done a BAD job of covering this.  It has been politicized; it has been given very biased and sensational coverage.  There are a variety of facets to this which I will address separately, but here I would like to underline why this girl deserved to be arrested and why this is not an overreach of government or bad legislation. There is a very good reason this is a felony level crime.

When I heard the news about an honors student, “household products”, a botched science experiment, and a bomb explosion, I knew what she had done, I knew how it was done, had a pretty good idea what went wrong, and had a very good idea of how dangerous it really was.  I first came across the reference to aluminum foil and either drain cleaner or toilet bowl cleaner in a book I read back in the late 70’s early 80’s, a work of fiction that mentioned it as a plot device.

That explosive chemical combination has been around a long time.  I am an esoteric reader; I pick up lots of oddities that end up stuck in the distant recesses of my brain.

What the media did not fairly, and accurately represent was just how very, very dangerous, how powerful and how unstable and unpredictable these explosives are.  They portrayed them as trivial and harmless, because they were made from ‘household products’. In every state, there are felony laws regulating this combination of ‘household products’, precisely because they are NOT harmless.  Kids AND adults are arrested and prosecuted fairly often for this same crime; there was nothing about Kiera Wilmot’s arrest that was different, or more harsh, or unfair.

The particular mix used by Keira Wilmot made a very unstable form of thermite; fortunately she made a very small amount of it.   For those who are not familiar with thermite, good ol’ wikipedia has an entry for it, a source I cite here to demonstrate how readily available the information is that this is highly dangerous, had Kiera Wilmot demonstrated genuine curiosity in the reaction she created:

Thermite is a pyrotechnic composition of metal powder fuel and metal oxide. When ignited by heat, thermite undergoes an exothermic oxidation-reduction reaction. Most varieties are not explosive but can create brief bursts of high temperature in a small area. Its form of action is similar to that of other fuel-oxidizer mixtures, such as black powder.

Thermites have diverse compositions. Fuels include aluminium, magnesium, titanium, zinc, silicon, and boron. Aluminium is common because of its high boiling point. Oxidizers include boron(III) oxide, silicon(IV) oxide, chromium(III) oxide, manganese(IV) oxide, iron(III) oxide, iron(II,III) oxide, copper(II) oxide, and lead(II,IV) oxide.

The media had an opportunity to educate and inform about a danger that is far too widespread. To provide a more FACTUAL understanding of how dangerous this is, I quote from the Purdue website on safety relating to Aluminum as a reactive substance:

Hydrogen Generating Reactions
Aluminum is a very reactive metal, and the greatest industrial hazards associated with aluminum are chemical reactions. Aluminum is an excellent reducing agent, and should react with water readily to liberate hydrogen. However, the protective aluminum oxide coating protects it from reaction with moisture or oxygen. If the protective coating is broken, for example, by scratching or by amalgamation (the process of coating with a film of mercury in which the metallic aluminum dissolves; the aluminum oxide coating does not adhere to the amalgamated surface), rapid reaction with moisture and/or oxygen can occur. The significance of this reaction is dependent upon the quantity of aluminum available to react. Aluminum is also oxidized by heat at a temperature dependent rate.
Aluminum metal is amphoteric (exhibits both acidic and basic characteristics). Therefore, aluminum will react with acids or bases; both reactions liberate hydrogen, a flammable gas. However, aluminum does not react with concentrated nitric acid because the oxidizing potential of the acid contributes to the formation of the protective aluminum oxide coating.11
Thermite Reactions
Aluminum readily extracts oxygen from other metal oxides to form aluminum oxide with the simultaneous release of large amounts of heat (enough heat to melt the products of the reaction). For example, the reaction of aluminum with ferric oxide to produce liquid aluminum oxide and liquid iron produces temperatures approaching 3000°C (5400°F). This reaction, referred to as the “thermite reaction,” has been used to weld large masses of iron and steel; when enclosed in a metal cylinder and ignited by a ribbon of magnesium has been used in incendiary bombs; and, with ammonium perchlorate added as an oxidizer, has provided the thrust for the space shuttle booster rockets.12

This video shows more on how dangerous this kind of pop bottle bomb can be.

Using a similarly improvised bomb, from readily available materials, including ‘household products’, just a short time after Kiera Wilmot made her bomb, this boy lost his fingers, and had his legs injured as well.  Like Kiera Wilmot, it appears the bomb maker was just kidding around, wanting to blow something up for fun.

In the recent arrest in Oregon, where a teen boy wanted to re-enact a kind of Columbine act of terrorism, he too had used the same toilet bowl cleaner chemical reaction, in some of the bombs he had prepared that were found under the floor boards of his bedroom.

The way the media broadly presented this kind of explosive reaction was more like vinegar and baking soda fizzing away, or mentos candy dropped in a bottle of soda pop creating a large fizzing ‘explosive’ reaction. That is simply not factual reporting.  As a result of this not appearing to the general public to be dangerous, as evidenced by comments left online at various sites, the public was outraged at what appeared to be an incomprehensible miscarriage of justice.

It was no such thing. Creating this kind of IED, an improvised explosive device, is a very serious thing.  That it appears as a fun, silly thing to do across the internet, including in countless youtube videos, as harmless and not illegal boggles my mind.  That the ACLU would try to pass this off as a harmless, common science experiment is ludicrous, and outright dishonest, as they must be aware that the school, including Kiera Wilmot’s science teacher has denied her actions had any connection to a science experiment assignment, nor was what she did anything other than dangerous teen behavior having fun.  Nothing about it was done in a manner consistent with performing a science experiment versus ‘just screwing around’.

The lack of anyone questioning what distinguishes activity as an actual science project has surprised me, and suggests a lack of training among the majority of our journalists (and bloggers).  Here is the commentary made by a blogger who actually helps run a respected science fair, noting the requirements of a science experiment:

For the record, let me state that I help run the annual Mercer Science and Engineering Fair in Mercer Count, NJ. I can also site a litany of events I was involved in that would make this experiment gone wrong look like what it is, a bad choice.

So let’s take a look at what could have happened. First, would this be something that could be in our science fair. Yes, but the way it was done in this instance would not be acceptable. Why? First, it does not appear that this was a supervised or reviewed experiment. It was an inquisitive group of students repeating a project that has shown up on You-Tube. Second, the methodology and safety procedures were all wrong or, rather, there were none. Finally, there was no consideration for cleaning up after the experiment. There is more but this is a blog not a detailed analysis.

The directions I received, consistently, for any science project or science fair was that every project or experiment had to be approved, it had to be researched first, and it had to meet the criteria of being both safe and legal.  Kiera Wilmot met none of those criteria with what she did.

In a science experiment, the person experimenting knows the properties of the components in the experiment, how they are likely to interact, what proportions are necessary, uses precise measurements, and knows what the likely outcome will be  – and why.

In point of fact, this kind of activity is frequently prosecuted as a felony, whether committed by kids or adults, and the amount of damage and injury that results from this kind of activity makes it clear that it is more than reasonable for it to be a felony, whether it is intended to do harm, like Grant Accord in Oregon, or does harm accidentally as was the case with the autistic boy in Australia, or fails to do the full potential harm that could have occurred, as happened with Kiera Wilmot.

This was not a harmless botched science experiment. This was a dangerous prank that had nothing to do with any ‘science experiment.’  This was an attempt to have some fun blowing something up.

There is a big difference between a dumb and dangerous prank, and an actual science experiment.   Kiera Wilmot was not seeking to learn something specific when she made a bottle bomb; she was just fooling around.  Both readers and those who report should ask themselves if what they are being told makes sense, or is true by any reliable or credible source other than the person involved, especially when that person is reasonably acting in their own self-interest to tell a less than fully forthcoming version of events.  That Kiere Wilmot did so away from where she thought it would be detected, but still on school grounds, is an indication that she understood before she did it that it was inappropriate behavior, if not that it was illegal. That should then lead to skepticism about her statements.

Media has tremendous influence, and that influence should always operate from a foundation of what is factual, and represent the circumstances of events like this fairly.  Exactly the opposite appears to have been done, and done on a very broad scale.

I have no ill will towards Kiera Wilmot; I’m glad that she came out of this experience as well as she did, and I sincerely empathize with what I believe her emotions and experience to have been.  But I do believe that there is not anything like the unfairness that is being claimed for the school or the prosecutors, or that there is anything wrong with the law or school code of conduct here.  Rather, it has been misrepresented, as has Kiera Wilmot’s actions, and the ACLU has been particularly egregious in participating in that misrepresentation.

I believe that she could have been treated fairly in our judicial system, and that when we have bad media coverage used to pressure or sway our legal system, then the options for any of us to be treated fairly in or out of court is compromised.

More than that, how people relate to their government, their laws, our society, our expectations and assumptions, are all skewed badly.  This was a terrible example of manipulation; the defense against that kind of manipulation lies with both reporting factually, and in not wrongly taking sides as advocates instead of reporters. The other failure was in sensationalizing this to get attention.

More in my next piece, on other significant aspects of this incident, and how it was covered.