I Was a Teenage Terrorist: The Star Simpson Story

A little over a week ago, the MIT campus found itself in the midst of a firestorm of media coverage surrounding an MIT student who was arrested at Boston’s Logan Airport wearing a “device” which reporters and police have been calling a “fake” or “hoax bomb.” This story cut close to home because the student in question, Star Simpson, had lived for a time in East Campus, a dorm which is right next door to Senior House (where I live).

During the course of that first weekend, I had people on all sides of the controversy wanting me to make a public statement to students about what happened, each convinced that I would side with them. I have been reluctant to do so — not wanting anything I said here to get absorbed into the media circus surrounding this case. My own sense is that both the government officials and the MIT administration issued statements prematurely without really understanding what went on and why and that the result was to inflame the news media.

To get a sense of how this story got covered by television news, you might check out this video produced by one MIT student and circulated on YouTube. The clips here suggest the glee with which reporters linked MIT, terrorism, bombs, and machine guns together to produce a story calculated to hit the hot buttons of their listeners. Joshua Glenn over at Boston.com provided a useful overview of some of the conflicting claims being made about this student. Here’s a sample:

“Bringing a fake bomb into Logan Airport gives new meaning to the term sophomoric behavior.”

Maybe Star Anna Simpson thought she could saunter through Logan and return to Cambridge with a helluva tale about how no one said a word to her. Or maybe she thought a half-dozen machine guns would do wonders for her Web site profile.”

“It was stupid of her to do it, but let’s not get hysterical. Give her community service and let’s be done with this before we make a mockery of ourselves again.”

“Simpson appears to be a classic case of book-smart but not social-smart.”

The initial reports suggested a student whose behavior in the words of the official MIT statement was “reckless.” Many of those in the know here initially assumed that this was some kind of “hack” (an MIT term for practical joke) which was in bad taste and which might have had fatal results. A very different story emerged when you considered some of the reports produced by web-based reporters and circulated through sites like Boing Boing and the Machinist. Here, Star Simpson comes across as a more typical MIT student, who was very much into a low tech aesthetic, making devices from found materials. Indeed, these reports are far more consistent with what I have been hearing from students who knew Star Simpson and they are consistent with the culture of East Campus, the dorm where she used to live, which has a long-standing tradition of do-it-yourself technology and construction projects. The so-called “hoax bomb” turns out to be a name tag featuring a star logo (for her name) made out of lite brites.

Many of us immediately linked the official responses to this lite-brite name badge back to what is now recognized as a over-reaction to a series of similarly low tech signs for The Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force last January, an incident still produces divergent responses depending on which side of a generational divide you fall. In both cases, the city responded to its own hysteria by charging the people involved with producing a “hoax bomb.” Surely, the issue of intentionality is involved here. One has to consciously seek to deceive someone in order to be involved in committing a hoax, which doesn’t seem to have been the case in either incident. My own theory is that it is much easier to accept that someone has made a fool of you than to acknowledge that you have made a fool of yourself within incidents which center around misunderstandings or misinterpretations of visual evidence.

If you look at the pictures of the device, it takes a big stretch of the imagination to view what she was wearing as resembling any kind of functioning weapon. Trust me — if a MIT student wanted to create something which could be confused for a bomb, they could do so with a high degree of accuracy. This doesn’t come anywhere close, witness the fact that she has reportedly worn this thing on our campus many times and no one has confused it for a bomb. It might never have crossed her mind that anyone could confuse this for a bomb — in part because

our students have a more intimate understanding of how technology works than the average airport security guard does.

Some of my friends in the MIT administration have urged me to use my influence with students to warn them that it is not appropriate to play games or do hacks at the Logan Airport, which, after all, needs to be on hyper-alert because it was the site where the airplanes took off on 9/11. So let me be clear: I don’t think it would be appropriate for any student to intentionally seek to deceive an airport official into believing that they were wearing a bomb or carrying a weapon. The news media has compared the incident to making jokes about bombs or guns in the security line at the airport. I certainly agree that such behavior would be grossly inappropriate and dangerous, but is that really what happened here? Star Simpson may have been guilty of nothing more than wearing a name badge that security guards mistook for a bomb.

So, how do I help students to predict what security guards are apt to mistake for a bomb? Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but under our constitutional system, it has to be theoretically possible to predict what would constitute criminal behavior.

So, given the two incidents, it would seem that the police have a strong anxiety about lite-brites. Police have also found it suspicious that Simpson was playing with Playdough in the airport. Would Playdough by itself be sufficient to trigger a police response? If so, we should probably be warning parents of small children.

Some have stressed the anxiety created by the circuit board. But many of our students carry around notebooks made from recycled circuit boards which are sold in college bookstores around the country. Should I tell them not to carry such devices to the airport?

The news media made much of the fact that this device lite up and was powered by a battery. This left me concerned since my late mother used to wear a broach to holiday parties which looked like a Christmas tree, lite up, and was battery powered. A star is not that removed from a Christmas tree, after all. Would such a device have been read as a bomb in the current climate? Or would the fact that it was being worn by a seventy something church lady have led to a different response?

My assumption is that if Star had worn a similarly mass produced, high tech device with the same features and functions, it would not have provoked concern from airport officials. It was the low tech, DIY nature of her name tag, perhaps more than anything else, which sparked the reactions of the airport security force, perhaps because the actual terrorists make use of similarly low tech devices. Yet, many at MIT have embraced low tech in part as a reaction to the cult of high tech which is so often associated with our institution, seeking a return to basic materials, hand crafting, simple and appropriate technologies, and so forth.

So, what is it that I warn my students against carrying to the airport?

Please don’t think I am making light of this situation. This is not a joking matter. Students should err on the side of caution. As citizens, we should be concerned that airport security take every reasonable precaution to insure the safety of passengers, but we should also be concerned by some of the almost lethal misunderstandings we are hearing about these days.

One of the things that struck me in the news coverage of the incident was the frequency with which reporters described the security force as “taking no chances” in their response to Star. Media scholars have noted the ways that seemingly objective terms can create bias in news coverage. For example often, in covering strikes, management makes “offers” and labor makes “demands,” even though both are involved in a process of back and forth negotiation. This language slants our perspective on which is the “reasonable” party and provides a script through which we make sense of labor politics.

In this case, the police “took no chances” if you assume that Star was either wearing a bomb or trying to trick someone into believing she was armed.

But if we consider that police pulled machine guns on an unarmed 19 year old in a public place, then we might think that they took a fair number of chances. I personally read the incident against the backdrop of a growing number of recent reports of students being tasered by campus police or for that matter, news stories which suggest campus police are now increasingly carrying weapons in reaction to the Virginia Tech incident. To me, this suggests that police are “taking chances” on a regular basis, especially given their apparent inability to make meaningful distinctions in responding to unfamiliar technologies or icons.

The news media — and perhaps the police — expressed initially confusion about the words on her black hoodie, “Socket To Me / COURSE VI.””; these phrases referred to her electrical engineering major (majors go by numbers in the MIT context) but were read with sinister associations by at least some of the initial news reports. How many of us wear equally cryptic symbols on our T-shirts, unawares, when we go to the airport? I certainly saw plenty of shirts I didn’t fully understand when I passed through Logan just last night returning from a speaking gig.

Another thing that struck me looking back on this incident was the difference in the ways the mainstream media and the blogsophere sought to cover this story. The mainstream media sent reporters to the MIT campus who beseiged anyone walking in or out of the East Campus dorm. Keep in mind that the dorm has several hundred residents, most of whom didn’t know Star Simpson. I lived across the street from her and to the best of my knowledge have never met her. The blog reporters tapped social network sites — followed her Facebook links, tracked down her home page, and understood something of the cultural context within which she produced the name tag. We shouldn’t be surprised that those immersed in new media understood how to locate and interpret the kinds of traces any college age student leaves on line, where-as the mainstream news reporters were following tried and true but also hit or miss methods which were unlikely to give them any real insight into who this student was.

If the mainstream news media showed limited media literacy skills in their handling of this particular story, I was proud of the ways that the incident got discussed within the context of MIT dorm discussion lists. Students showed initial skepticism of the sensational reporting they were seeing, especially when it was clear that the reporters showed so little understanding of their culture and their lives. They shared and dissected news reports. They sought out alternative information on their own, pooling knowledge to try to understand what took place and why. While the temptation was to rally around an accused fellow student (and that’s where most of them ended up), there were some who were willing to play devil’s advocate and question the evidence to make sure that they were not guilty of the same kinds of rush to judgment that they were seeing all around them. This was a classic example of collective intelligence at work.

I don’t know for sure what happened that day at Logan Airport. There are some nagging details that don’t quite add up no matter how I look at the story. But it is pretty clear that there was a significant misunderstanding involved here, that the news media didn’t consider alternative framings of the incident and that they were more invested in frightening the public than in finding out what actually occurred.

The title of this post suggests the kind of mental drama that many of those involved in the incident were following — the Movie of the Week sagas which might pit a mislead American youth against heroic airport guards fighting to protect our homeland security, perhaps even the cold war dramas about communists in our midst. I just hope we have room in our heads to consider other possibilities.

Comments

  1. I don’t think the mainstream media demonstrated less new media literacy, they perhaps acknowledge that their viewer base possesses less than the average 18 year old and stray from focusing too heavily on it. News reports were keen to stress that Star mentions on her personal website (athena webspace) that she “loves crazy ideas.” The remaining information on a facebook profile and wallposts most likely contained less possibly defamatory material.

    I, for one, am always slightly disconcerted that when a person my age (22) dies, print newspapers summarize someone’s facebook profile to flesh out the character portrait. (ie. jimmy listed bob dylan and jefferson airplane as his favorite bands on facebook, showing he was a fan of the 70s) i’m not sure if i’m showing social networking fatigue or just worried my profiles won’t capture my identity totally.

  2. Thanks for this post; it’s the first thing I’ve read on the subject that hasn’t made my blood try to boil.

    –a Random alum

  3. For a similarly calm and reasoned response to hysteria on both sides of the earlier Aqua Teen Hunger Force / Lite Brite incident, here’s Andy Ihnatko’s blog post from around then.

    http://www.cwob.com/yellowtext/yellowtext0207.html#70118

  4. What shocks me about this situation is that so many people (police, airport staff, reporters, attorneys, etc) have no clue what they are looking at, because it is a raw technical artifact. And then they react with fear at what they don’t understand.

    When I saw this “simulated bomb”, I recognized it immediately as a piece of solderless breadboard with a bunch of LEDs hooked up to a 9 volt battery. Absolutely harmless. Most of us engineering types have built the same sort of thing before we finished high school.

    It frightens me that our society is entirely dependent on the products of engineering, yet the average person has almost no knowledge of what lies beneath the covers, and is forced to trust the producers of technology the same way ancients put their faith in priests, mystics and shamans.

  5. This incident reminds me strongly of one that occurred much more quietly in an engineering dorm at Cornell back in the 90s. A student had a chunk of clay that he had been playing with, and randomly stuck it on a pole in the common room on his way thru one day. Somebody else stuck a battery and a wire into the clay, making an abstract artwork. The wire stuck straight out of the clay, and was not actually connected to the battery.

    A week or so later, a Janitor spied the “bomb” and freaked out. Administration investigated, and after inquiries, was able to determine the identity of the student who added the batteries and the wire. That student was rewarded with an extensive chat with the FBI.

    Lucky for him that all occurred pre-911, so after that harrowing experience, he was able to return to his normal student life, with only the administration, the FBI, and a couple hundred fellow students knowing the whole story.

  6. As someone who dabbles in electronics and DIY projects, I have to assume that the problem is more the location then anything else. Here in Silicon Valley, we make DIY projects all the time and wear them out. Often to Airports, public offices, government buildings etc. Never once have I heard of someone walking into SFO or OAK and getting machine guns pointed at them.

    Boston seems to be a breeding ground for uninformed, closed minded, quick to jump to conclusions people. Lite Brite signs being considered a hoax device, and blowing up city owned traffic counters comes to mind here.

    It seems to me that people need to take themselves a little less seriously. Those in power positions, need to stop and think occasionally about their job and responsibility. The need to go back to police school and learn how to observe before they pull out a weapon.

    The Boston officials need to stop being idiots, and get over themselves.

  7. There are so many aspects of this incident that drive me batty just to think about it.

    First, if someone wants to successfully set off a bomb in an airport terminal, it’s probably not going to look like a bomb on the outside.

    Second, if someone goes to an airport terminal with a bomb that actually looks like a bomb, you can pretty much bet they intend to set it off whether there are guns pointing at them or not.

    Third, that thing didn’t even look like a bomb!

    Fourth, the proper course of action would have been, “Oh, sorry ma’am. You’d better put that thing away so it doesn’t scare anybody else. You won’t tell anybody will you, because we’ll look really stupid if people find out.”

    Fifth, the security folks said “She was lucky she followed their commands, or else she’d be dead right now.” NEWSFLASH: If it had been a bomb, the security folks would be dead right now, because there’s no way to keep someone who’s packing a bomb from setting it off if that’s really what they want to do.

    Sixth, there’s a huge amount of geek-hate in this country (probably in every country). Part of the reason people jumped on that whole “Technically brilliant, socially inept – she was foolish to have even worn that to the airport and should have known better so we should give her community service” thing was because people love to hate somebody, and geeks are an easy target.

    Seventh, with security personnel like this, I think by now we can all see how a 9/11 could have happened.

  8. I think to alleviate this type of hysteria in the future, MIT students should join local law enforcement agencies around the country. This way, we will have our best and brightest keeping tabs on which electronic devices hanging on people’s bodies are, or are not, bombs.

    With all of the limited media literacy and untrained ignorant cops around, we need the exceptional intellect of MIT graduates to help us keep this country safe. Who doesn’t know the various visual configurations of bombs? Those cops were suicide bomb noobs. I know at least 50 configurations and I didn’t even attend MIT. An MIT graduate must know over 150! Possibly more!

  9. so Boston police and Logan security make a mistake and then decide to charge the people who were mistaked upon with a criminal offense

    thats like a father saying something wrong to his child, the child correcting him and the father feeling so embarrassed that he then grounds the child rather than admit that he was wrong…

  10. Unrealious says:

    Your Honor,

    I realize that I was speeding and refused to pull over, but, you see I thought it was a fake police officer. Little did I realize that it was a real police officer who was perpetrating a hoax by pretending to be a fake officer. I think that the officer who did this should be responsible, because it was all just a hoax.

  11. I’m an EC alum (5E ’07), and I do know Star. And I wanted to say, thank you for this.

  12. Granted, I’ve only read one other account of the story. However, it mentioned that the clerk asked Star about the device, and she failed to respond. I’m sure Henry is tactfully not mentioning many of the other details that impilicate the student.

  13. I remember being 19. In particular, I remember not being very bright about a lot of things. You could get me to do stuff by convincing me how ‘wicked cool’ it’d be.

    That was back before the rise of celebrity for the sake of celebrity which seems to have gripped a lot of folks, including those in college. As an example, consider the Kerry Taser incident.

    I believe it is possible that the police overreacted to prevent “freaking out the cops at the airport” from becoming something cool to do. It sounds a little stupid to treat college students in this way, perhaps especially those from MIT.

    But I can imagine a law enforcement type saying “We don’t want to have to deal with a string of copycats looking for their 15 seconds of fame.”

    It provides a framework to understand their overreaction, and continued parroting of their own overreaction: the police aren’t apologizing.

    Having said that, can we please stop pretending that the ‘artwork’ that was worn wa in any way impressive. Or artistic. It was a lame piece of hackery. And I’m using hack in the pejorative. I don’t buy the story that it was to impress at a job fair. It wouldn’t.

    For what it’s worth, I believe this was a case of poor judgement. A (relatively) young kid, up late in a tech-friendly environment for the first time in a while: I can easily see scenarios where someone said “It’d blow there minds if you showed up wearing that blinker and some playdoh! That’d be cool!”

  14. You made it onto the front page of reddit.

    Personally I think they should have a bomb/explosives give their opinion before a move has been made. I am sure they could tell a name badge is not a bomb, and a homemade ipod battery charger in an Altoids container is not a bomb either.

  15. Larry Winiarski says:

    I cannot believe how many people apparently think blinking lights on a protoboard, means it has a reasonably high probability of being a bomb…and therfore justifies lethal force.

    It’s a sad state of ignorance and paranoia.

    I did a little research and I only see 2 bombs exploded on planes in the U.S. ( all the rest actually happened overseas )

    1 in 1933. The first ever air bomb. Killed 7 people people

    and the other in 1979, by the unabomber

    which didn’t work and just smoked.

    I was actually pretty amazed at this fact myself…

    So if you were born in the last 74 years, your chance of dying from an airplane bomb in the us is actually zero

    So as I understand it the 9/11 attackers claimed to have a bomb, (they didn’t) and used the passengers fear, to keep them from fighting..so your ridiculous fear of bombs, actually enabled the terrorists to do their work without interference

  16. A 9-volt transistor battery plus an LED is a flashlight circuit, only not as bright as a regular flashlight.

    The authorities at Logan, who apparently cannot recognize a simple flashlight circuit, evidently aren’t very bright, either.

    After all, it’s been 128 years since Thomas Edison first wired up that same circuit.

    If people in power, carrying deadly weapons in public, are terrified of a trivial flashlight circuit, there probably isn’t much hope for what’s left of our increasingly dysfunctional civilization.

  17. Larry Winiarski says:

    I’m sorry, but I recently became aware of several other bombings which took place, but were not classified as terrorism.

    Here’s the complete list of fatalities that occured as the result of a bomb on a plane in the United States

    (That I am aware of)

    Commercial Airline Bombing in the U.S.

    1933 NC13304 7 killed

    1955 United Airlines Flight 629 44 killed

    1960 National Airlines Flight 2511 34 killed

    1962 Continental Airlines Flight 11 45 killed

    1976 Cubana Flight 455 73 killed

    There is one more case which the NTSB ruled as inconclusive

    1959 National Airlines Flight 967 42 killed

    So 203 confirmed fatalities in 75 years

    of flying, or and average of 2.7 deaths per year. (and none since 1976)

    So 2.7 deaths per year..looking at the last 75 years.

    0.0 deaths per year, in the last 30 years.

    So here’s an interesting calculation, I did.

    Apparently there were about 600,000 passenger flights in 2000, so if you figure 5 minutes in line in security, and an average lifespan of 80 years, this works out to 76 lifetimes spent in security lines. Wouldn’t it be ironic if you were more likely to die waiting in the security line?

    .

  18. I think a big part of the problem here is the idea that Boston, and particularly Logan Airport, needs to be on “hyper-alert.” Those planes could have left from anywhere that morning. There are dozens of transcontinental flights leaving from dozens of airports, nationwide, everyday, that day (9/11) it happened to be Logan, Newark etc. The likelihood that a terrorist attack will originate from any given airport is probably about the same across the board for airports of similar traffic loads.

  19. zach norton says:

    I am not a security guard. Nor do I pretend to be a technological wizard. I am about as close to a green-thumb mechanic as it comes for the military, this much I know. As I get ready to depart to Iraq, it has been difficult for me to awaken the side of myself that would allow me to take out any target that would seem to threaten me or my team.

    I have heard horror stories from Iraq. Stories of children coaxed along by their parents to walk towards US soldiers, all the while wearing something unnatural. Whether it was a bomb or not was still a burdening question before the trigger was pulled.

    The soldiers knew that this scene was anything but normal. It was the fear that kept the team alive.

    I agree that fear is rampant throughout the US, even more so since 9/11. However, if you consider how quickly a simple bomb can demolish a single team in an armored car… fear might be the life-saving attitude of someone concerned for their life. For a country at war, especially considering the location this event took place, staying alive is everyone’s concern.

    Not everyone wanting to blow something up uses Wiley Coyote’s 800-lbs A C M E bomb with a fuse on top. It takes imagination to spot a bomb! Especially if you consider most airport security guards have never seen a real bomb.

    I do agree this was a fun-hearted low-tech fashion statement. Consider the airport for a moment, though. If a tolerance for odd-looking gadgetry was developed, couldnt this plausibly become a cover for the real thing?

    You scholars are attending one of the most elite schools in the country. I would hope when it comes to misunderstandings of your science, life and fun, it would be your initial response to teach the lesser understanding individuals of this nation, rather than exclude them. As elite scholars and teachers, who will show us the way if you were to be bigoted towards our simple (mis)understandings? At the same time, please respect our concerns.

    As a litmus test, ask yourselves this: will something about to be displayed in public arouse the suspicions of at least one unknowing person?

    All it takes is one.

  20. Larry Winiarski says:

    This isn’t Iraq. Bombs are very rare here. We don’t have to make such decisions.

    As far as “fear” saving lives, it also kills innocent people. Try to put yourself in their position and imagine a foreign power had taken over the United States. How would you want them to act?

    Suppose you heard they had killed an innocent child? How would you react?

    Maybe the real answer is we shouldn’t be there in the first place, if we justify killing innocents to protect ourselves

  21. Bill Crompton says:

    Instantly recognised your reference to employers making “offers” and employees making “demands”. The best example of this clever, manipulative use of words was in the core definitions of the parties involved in the “Cold War”. “They” were members of the “Warsaw Pact”, “we” of the “North Atlantic TREATY Organisation”.

    However, if you listened to Radio Moscow World Service back in those dark days, newsreaders/announcers simply referred to the “Warsaw Treaty”!

    Now, take the word “pact” and think of the context wherein it is most used in the English-speaking world…God Bless you, Mr. Orwell ;)