A chaotic scramble to shut down a city’s bridges, subway stations, interstate highway and main river artery usually coincides with a major anti-terrorism operation, which is exactly what happened last week in Boston when authorities thought they had uncovered a twisted plot to wreak havoc on the city’s unsuspecting citizens.

When revealed, however, the conspiracy didn’t involve FBI-intercepted phone calls or the nefarious activities of terrorists. Nor did it have the hallmark signs of an al Qaeda-driven plan to create urban carnage. The real culprit, believe it or not, was an advertisement of a lit-up cartoon character flipping the proverbial “bird” at drivers and pedestrians—a slightly offensive gesture, yes, but hardly the next 9/11.

How did an ad garner so much attention in one afternoon? Well, it was actually 38 ads at nine locations that caught the eye of Boston police officers on Jan. 31. Turner Broadcasting Systems had recently installed one-foot tall signs, resembling circuit boards, depicting a character from the Cartoon Network’s adult-themed “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” giving passersby the finger. Incidentally, the ad campaign was not unique to Boston. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Francisco and Philadelphia all had similar devices for two to three weeks—without the security scare.

Now, if you think there’s some complicated, overreaction-quashing explanation to this story, then think again. Boston city officials made a mountain out of a molehill, plain and simple. Believing the contraptions to be some sort of improvised explosive device, bomb squads descended on every known location of the advertisements, bringing traffic—and thus most of the city—to a grinding halt. And the blunder didn’t come cheap either; it cost emergency responders $750,000 and an entire wasted day for people stuck in the standstill.

It’s forgivable in a post-9/11 world for American cities to stay vigilant, but in this situation the City of Boston is guilty of more than just hawk-eyed watchfulness. Its administrators overreacted to a trivial threat and subsequently created an unnecessary atmosphere of fear among its own citizens and even the rest of the nation.

However, instead of apologizing for an obviously over-the-top reaction, law enforcement officials threw the book at 27-year-old Peter Berdovsky and 28-year-old Sean Stevens, who were hired by Turner’s advertising agency to place the devices around town and are now under arrest with criminal charges pending against them. It would behoove the city to release the two gentlemen who clearly had no intention of causing mass panic among their fellow Bostonians.

It’s decent enough that, as of Feb. 5, Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay $2 million in restitution for the trouble its ads have caused Boston since the pandemonium of Jan. 31. But government officials have themselves to blame for creating the biggest publicity coup since Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio adaptation of “War of the Worlds” frightened listeners into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. It’s not every day that an advertisement for a late-night television show brings an entire city to its knees.