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All Joking Aside, You're Under Arrest

Sometimes it seems as if Massport is lacing the water coolers that Logan Airport security personnel drink from on their breaks. After the imbroglio surrounding M.I.T.-undergraduate-cum-performance-artist Star Simpson, which I blogged about last week, some people appropriately began to question the judgment of airport security in failing to recognize what was obviously not an explosive device. Of course, some reactionary bloggers, faux patriots, and security-uber-alles types blasted Simpson for her judgment, employing the old canard that because we have to protect lives, after 9/11 even transparent joking about security threats is verboten.

But six years after 9/11, it may be time to start questioning our reflexive and impulsive tendencies to prioritize the illusion of security above all else, including liberty and even ordinary common sense (or what the shrinks call “reality testing”). The homeland security industry has constructed the mind-set that we are all at risk of dying in a terrorist attack. (Of course it’s true that we could all die in some catastrophe, natural or man-made, but the question is how far we have to go in wrecking our society in order to save it.) To serve that end, it deploys high-profile but inefficient and freedom-crippling policies that reinforce the sense of panic and, as one academic argues, helps bolster security-fetish politicians’ chances for re-election.

I don’t know whether the ineffective but highly-visible policies should make me laugh or cry. Do the feds seriously consider harassment of children "carrying remote-control toys" to be a necessary element of homeland security? To be sure, some people remain serious in their desires to commit acts of terrorism and other crimes. But the tendency to overhype irrelevant but visible 'threats,' at the expense of less visible and more onerous threats, ultimately does more harm than good. But when would-be travelers go out of their way to make clear that it’s a joke (or sarcasm), one would think that security personnel would stop wasting their time, taxpayers’ money, and travelers’ patience by pretending, like Chicken Little, that the sky is falling.

All this comes up because on Monday, an Ethiopian man was arraigned for telling a Logan Airport–surprise, surprise–check-in agent that he intended to blow up an airplane. When twenty-seven year old Ermiyas Asfaw was confronted about stickers on his luggage marked Dubai, United Arab Emirates, he joked that he was an al-Qaeda member. Anyone who believed him, of course, would be just a hair shy of being committable.

Like in the case of Star Simpson, it appears that Logan security has not been properly trained in distinguishing between real and faux threats. As I told a Boston Herald reporter in connection with that case, why would a terrorist proudly display on the outside of her sweatshirt the circuit board of the bomb she was carrying? In this case, would a real al-Qaeda member be likely to admit–indeed, boast–to a check-in agent that he is a terrorist, only to walk away laughing? Or would he be more likely to be as discreet and ordinary as possible in order to actually carry out his goals? Should we not insist on some common sense on the part of those entrusted with our security?

Given the instinctive reaction to anything related to terrorism in airports, Asfaw was irresponsible in joking about being a terrorist, and certainly ill-advised. But the behavior surely should not reach the level of the criminal. That it was a sarcastic joke is evidenced by his behavior after he said it, where he walked away laughing and proceeded to attempt to get on his flight before being intercepted by police.

Even worse is that, as a result of his joke to the ticket agent, Asfaw was charged with making a bomb threat. There are, of course, serious free speech implications of laws prohibiting merely talking about bombs in a jocular manner in airports—rooted perhaps in fears that ordinary citizens will be as gullible as airport security personnel and that pandemonium might erupt if people heard such off-hand remarks about bombs. But there is also a considerable problem with the poor judgment exhibited by the professionals who are tasked with protecting the public, when they seem not to be able to distinguish an obvious joke from the real thing.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating; the test of whether airport personnel are smoking too much weed will come if and when any of these cases get to a jury. My experience tells me that it will be next-to-impossible to get any Massachusetts jury to agree unanimously that either the MIT performance artist or the sarcastic Ethiopian jokester could reasonably be perceived as a terrorist. Of course, when the Homeland Security types begin to recognize that the general public does not buy all of this “national security” hype and overzeal, they may forego trial altogether, in which case maybe jokesters like Asfaw will, in the future, find themselves not facing a judge in a Boston court, but rather the wide Caribbean Sea on a tarmac at Guantanamo. If Homeland Security can’t get them in the real legal system, maybe they’ll try that parallel system that our government has created.

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