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Paula Simons: Edmonton bomb-carrier did us all a favour

The words bomb and bong sound alike. Their purposes are somewhat different. A bong can help to blow your mind. A bomb can help to blow you up. This might seem obvious.

The words bomb and bong sound alike. Their purposes are somewhat different.

A bong can help to blow your mind. A bomb can help to blow you up.

This might seem obvious. But it’s a distinction that may have been lost on security staff at Edmonton’s International Airport.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Skylar Murphy, Spruce Grove’s most internationally acclaimed idiot. Murphy is the teen who stole ammunition from his mother’s boyfriend, a provincial sheriff. He used gunpowder from the bullets to build pipe bombs with a buddy, just for fun.

He tucked one into his camera bag and forgot about it. Months later, he was flying off to Mexico with his family, with his camera. This could have led to a sticky moment at the airport. But the security staffers who found the black-powder-packed pipe with the long fuse failed to recognize it as a bomb.

Employees with Garda, the security firm hired by the Canadian Transport Security Authority to screen passengers at Edmonton International Airport, inspected the device and politely handed it back to him. When he demurred, they apparently placed the improvised explosive device into the bin of contraband, along with the usual selection of dangerous hand lotion, juice boxes, yogurt and such.

It took four days before someone recognized the threat Murphy’s DIY project represented and called the RCMP.

Why the delay? In a news report last week, the CBC offered a deliciously dopey explanation. According to the CBC’s source, the explosive device was wrapped for safekeeping in a plastic shopping bag from a “head shop.” The bag was reportedly decorated with images of marijuana leaves, which gave the security guards the impression that the tube inside it was some kind of drug pipe. They saw a bong. Not a bomb.

CBC reported guards swabbed the pipe for drug residue. Finding none, it seems they simply handed it back.

It’s a fantastic tale, the kind we want to believe, even if it sounds implausible.

Could it be true? Mathieu Larocque, a spokesman for CATSA, says security officers don’t swab or check items for drug residue.

Still, Larocque acknowledges the device wasn’t properly identified, neither at the moment it was discovered, nor for days afterwards. It might almost be less embarrassing at this point for CATSA to go with the bong story. At least it offers some kind of explanation.

But I, for one, applaud Murphy. Sure, he thought it amusing to steal bullets from a serving peace officer just to make things go boom. Sure, he’s the rocket scientist who forgot he’d packed a bomb in his luggage.

But what a public service he’s done for the nation. He has already inspired CATSA to issue new guidelines to staff and offer more training on bomb detection. (Example: a metal tube with a long fuse filled with gunpowder is probably not a hash pipe.) More importantly, he has inspired serious national debate about how we contract out airport security to private firms, and about just how ludicrous screening protocols are and how inanely they’re applied.

While guards are distracted, obsessing over every bottle of hand sanitizer, every belt buckle and underwire bra, they could be missing real threats. When people are so focused on enforcing rigid, illogical rules, they can forget to use their own common sense and good judgment to assess risk.

If Skylar Murphy had been named Salim Mohammed, he might have received rather different treatment. That should also give us pause. Racial profiling isn’t just bigoted. It’s dangerous. Last week, there were reports a young Calgarian, Damien Clairmont, had been killed fighting in Syria. He’s not the first Canadian convert to radical Islam to have been involved in overseas violence this year. Nor are Islamic extremists the only people with grudges or dangerous intentions. A real terrorist threat might not conform to lazy stereotypes.

And while Murphy acted out of reckless stupidity, not malice, his IED could have done serious damage had it gone off accidentally.

We’re lucky to be able to enjoy the luxury of laughter. This incident should blow a hole in a lot of our comfortable certainties about the way airport screening works in this country. For that, perhaps we all owe Murphy our grudging thanks.