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.