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Turner tricksters should pay

Executives at Turner Broadcasting displayed an astounding lack of judgment by planting devices that could be mistaken for explosive devices as a means to publicize an animated television show. Through a sequence of events that Turner could have anticipated, the birdbrain scheme briefly paralyzed a city — and blew up in the face of its creators.

It is not uncommon for radio shock jocks to create elaborate on-air hoaxes. Usually, they result in the humiliation of a few innocent people. But Turner's ad gimmick, undertaken in 10 cities from coast to coast, affected tens of thousands of people in the Greater Boston area. Businesses lost customers. Commuters lost time. Even more serious, first responders from local, state, and federal public safety agencies were called away from their legitimate duties.

One wouldn't expect the promoters of the TV program ‘‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force'' to score high on a maturity index. But anyone older than 8 or 9 should be able to understand the dangers of staging such a stunt in the post-Sept. 11 world. Homeland Security experts will need to review the response of local law enforcement. Public safety personnel may have overreacted; local bloggers apparently identified the guerrilla advertising campaign early on. But it's hardly surprising if others who weren't in on the gag were suspicious. As a rule, first responders are left little choice but to assume they are facing a legitimate threat.

Perpetrators of terror hoaxes can anticipate prison sentences of up to five years if apprehended. But potential criminal prosecution is only one consideration. The tricksters at Turner, a unit of Time Warner, Inc., should pay the bill for the consequences of its lame marketing gimmick.

Terrorism hoaxes are common. Two years ago, a drug addict and smuggler gave a fake tip about a terrorist incursion in Boston that led to another massive mobilization of law enforcement. In 2005, an angry deportee used a fake threat that forced officials to close a tunnel under Baltimore's harbor. Turner officials say their devices were never meant to be seen as threats. Yet they find themselves in bad company.

There is an upside to these events. There was no public panic. Law enforcement responded in a coordinated fashion, both in terms of dispatching bomb disposal experts, securing sensitive areas, and updating the public and news media with consistent messages.

Turner Broadcasting sought publicity, and it will get plenty. But the message being received by the public has nothing to do with the promotion of a silly cartoon. The pictures coming into view show that a company run by immature executives should keep its foolish marketing ideas to itself.