Saturday, September 22, 2007

Is Anyone Else Tired Of This?

Or am I the only one?

I hate traveling nowadays. No, I like being different places and seeing things that don't look like the inside of my house. That's great. It's getting there, or to be more precise, flying there that I hate. I hate being afraid.

I'm not afraid of flying. Flying is one of the safest forms of transportation, no matter how you measure it. I'm certainly not afraid of terrorism. What I'm afraid of is the airports, and this is an example of why:

Star Simpson, a 19-year-old MIT student, was arrested at gunpoint Friday morning at Boston's Logan Airport when officers suspected that a circuit board and battery she had pinned to her sweatshirt was a bomb. Indeed, every news outlet is now referring to the thing as a "fake bomb," and Simpson has been charged with possessing a "hoax device."

Is Star Simpson's "fake bomb" just an art jacket?

To answer the question in the title to Farhad Manjoo's article, I don't know if that jacket, pictured above with apologies to the AP, is a work of art. It is clearly, though, an experimenter's circuit board, usually called a "breadboard", with nine T-1 size LEDs and a battery just barely big enough to power them. (The Associated Press, incidentally, mislabeled it as a "computer circuit board"). The LEDs are arranged in a star shape, like as in "Star" Simpson, get it? A breadboard is a device electrical engineering students and hobbyists use to test out circuit designs. I'm not an ordinance expert, but that circuit doesn't look like anything I'd build to ignite explosives. Even though the connections are taped, it doesn't look anywhere near reliable enough for that sort of purpose. I know I could build a more convincing fake device - anyone wanting to scare people would make such a thing look like those devices you see on TV. What it looks like to me is a geek's idea of what art looks like.

A geek, as it turns out, is exactly who Star Simpson is. Here's what an acquaintance of hers had to say about her at Boing Boing:

Star was an intern at Squid Labs this summer, and is an all-around awesome geek who loves to build things. FYI, friends at MIT say she wears the hoodie on a regular basis- it's just unfortunate that she had it on while trying to pick a friend up at the airport. MIT students don't really do mornings, or worry about what they're wearing, so I can't imagine she'd even think about her clothes before heading out to pick up a friend at the airport before 8am.

MIT student arrested for entering Boston airport with "fake bomb"

Here's how she describes herself, according to Manjoo:

Simpson describes herself this way on the Web:

In a sentence, I'm an inventor, artist, engineer, and student, I love to build things and I love crazy ideas.

In a paragraph; I'm currently studying computers and how they work at MIT. I play at a student-run machine shop called MITERS. Before that, I lived for a long time in Hawaii, while traveling the world and saving the planet from evil villains with my delivered-just-in-time gadgets.

Is Star Simpson's "fake bomb" just an art jacket?

She sounds like a geek to me - not interested in fashion, very interested in building things, and prone to using language precisely. She's someone who uses her mind, and probably assumes that others do as well. She sounds just naive enough to forget that the world is full of paranoids, luddites, religious fanatics, and bigots. The sorts of raving morons who'd assume that a brown-skinned girl with a crewcut, a funny-looking wig, and some technological gizmo pinned to her black hooded sweatshirt simply must be up to no good. Welcome to the real world, Star.

Speaking of raving morons, here's what the Massachusetts State Police had to say on the matter:

"I'm shocked and appalled that somebody would wear this type of device to an airport," said State Police Maj. Scott Pare, the airport's commanding officer.

Lawyer: Fake Bomb Charge an Overreaction

Yep, shocked and appalled that anyone would wear something into an airport that she worked with all the time, and knew to be no more harmless than the stuff everyone else around her was wearing. It's shocking and appalling that there are people in this country who aren't yet so paranoid, obsessed, and frightened of terrorist incidents that happen once a decade or so that they forgot to check themselves for all the things that could get them killed by security people at the airport. Think I'm being overly dramatic? Here's Maj. Pare again:

"She was immediately told to stop, to raise her hands and not to make any movement, so we could observe all her movements to see if she was trying to trip any type of device," Pare said. "Had she not followed the protocol, we might have used deadly force."

He added, "She's lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue."

Lawyer: Fake Bomb Charge an Overreaction

If she'd been deaf, or had poor vision or some other handicap that made assessing a situation quickly difficult, she could very well have been killed. Instead, she's up on ridiculous charges. Gosh, you'd think that a nineteen year old college student would have more sense, wouldn't you? You would if you didn't actually know any.

And this, folks, is why I'm frightened of airports. The odds of my being killed or injured in a terrorist attack are mind-bogglingly small. The odds of me being assaulted, or possibly killed, for some imaginary offense, while also small, seem much larger to me. Airport security, in other words, is more frightening than the problem they're trying to solve. No doubt the security people like it that way. After all, if we're all cowed into doing what they say, things will go much more smoothly in all those "security checks" where they try to figure out if passengers have enough toothpaste and hair gel to destroy an airplane. While there's truth to that, I think the disadvantages of that feeling may outweigh the advantages.

Consider this scenario - you're in an airport waiting for your flight. You see something suspicious for a moment. A moment is probably all you'll have, because I can't imagine that anyone who has planned a terrorist plot carefully is going to look suspicious for long. Let's further suppose that whatever you've seen was done by someone who doesn't look like he comes from the Middle East. Do you report it? Don't forget, it could turn out to be nothing at all. Making a false report is a crime, and while it may be obvious that you're not doing so to the people you report it to, it also might not. You could spend the night in jail for your troubles, and be charged with a patently false offense, just as Star Simpson was. If you're smart, you'll keep your mouth shut.

I certainly wouldn't trust the law enforcement people of Boston to make that call correctly.

Some readers may think that I'm suggesting that airport police shouldn't have taken Simpson's appearance seriously. That is not so. If they didn't know what she was wearing, but it looked suspicious, they should have investigated. Since what she was wearing looked, to someone not familiar with technology, like a detonator or some other potentially dangerous device, their use of deadly force wasn't out of bounds. What I'm suggesting is that after they realized that it wasn't either a threat or a terrorist act, they should have let her go. Not doing so only decreases the trust anyone might place in these security people. That trust is more important than the fear they seem determined to instill in us.

As Farhad Manjoo put it:

Had it not been for the six years we've already lived through irrational, useless, annoying, psychologically defeating overeager airport security -- put in place to prevent an event that could have been solved by a single measure, locking the cockpit doors -- the prospect of a promising young student being killed by cops for wearing a battery on her back might come as a shock.

But now it elicits almost no surprise. What, police at a major airport were about to kill someone for the crime of wearing a circuit board? Yeah, what else is new.

Is Star Simpson's "fake bomb" just an art jacket?

I'm really, really tired of this.

UPDATE (Sept. 23): Quite a few of the comments about Farhad Manjoo's article have mentioned, in terms sometimes not very polite, that it seems silly that wearing such an obviously harmless device to an airport should be tantamount to committing suicide. I agree. If we're going to give people guns and have them patrol airport terminals that are full of people, they need to have an awareness of what constitutes a bomb or other dangerous device and what doesn't. Drawing a gun in a crowd is a serious action. It shouldn't be done for frivolous reasons. Better training would probably make that less likely.


Anonymous said...

My question is, how many suicide bombers wear their detonation circuitry in plain sight?

Cujo359 said...

To be honest, Eli, I have no idea. My guess is that most don't, but I'm not an expert, nor can I foresee all possible scenarios. I also can't see any reason why someone would wear a detonator on her back, which appears to be where the circuit board was. All I know is that to anyone who knows the least bit about electronics, that's clearly not a dangerous piece of equipment. Unfortunately, what we seem to be doing is asking people who don't know the least bit about technology to make those calls.