OK! Was Star Simpson intentionally hoaxing folks at Logan Airport -- that is, did she actually want them to believe that she was wearing a bomb pinned to her sweatshirt? Or was Simpson innocently (if naively, given the post-9/11 vigilance in American airports) sporting what she and other hackers, makers, and MIT undergrads think of as an artistic nametag? On Friday, not long after the 19-year-old sophomore's arrest was reported, I made the latter argument. Well, we've all had a weekend and a day to think about the matter -- so what's the verdict?
On Saturday, the Boston Herald's Howie Carr wrote that "Bringing a fake bomb into Logan Airport gives new meaning to the term sophomoric behavior." Also: "I guarantee you Star was never spanked as a kid. So now she needs a timeout. How does three-to-five sound?"
"Did Simpson ... go to Logan in search of a YouTube moment, not unlike the one created a few days earlier at the University of Florida by unctuous self-promoter Andrew 'Don't Tase me, bro' Meyer?" speculated another Herald writer, Peter Gelzinis, on Sunday. "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."
"Stop with the sympathy for MIT student Star Simpson," agreed the Herald's Michele McPhee yesterday. Simpson is guilty, argued McPhee, of making "a spectacle of herself asking inane questions of Massport employees" while wearing a "bizarre ensemble" (less charitably, McPhee also calls it a "hoax device" and "fake bomb"), and of using Logan Airport as the setting for an "art project": "There is absolutely nothing artistic about scaring people in public places."
Herald readers got the message. In a letter published in the Boston Herald today, Leo Higgins of Plymouth is scathing about what he describes as "Star Simpson's 'artistic' rendering of a bomb, and her foolish attempt to debut it at Logan Airport."
Some Brainiac readers are also unsympathetic with Star. Someone styling him- or herself fscram085 emails: "I can't believe you have the nerve to write an article criticizing the State Police decision in regards to Star Simpson and her 'art.' How dare you have the nerve to 'poke fun' at a serious threat.... You are a disgrace to the United States for writing an article like this. Are you a friend of Star Simpson? You must be, because I don't know any Americans out there who think this incident was a joke."
On Friday, Joe Keohane wrote on Boston Magazine's Daily Blog that "this business about it being a hoax is nonsense. It's only a hoax if she pretended it was a bomb, which she did not. 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."
On Friday, Salon's Machinist blog argued that "it seems quite possible that rather than intending to deliberately walk into Logan with a fake bomb, Simpson might instead have rolled out of bed with an art jacket she often wore around campus and slipped it on in a rush on her way to pick up a friend -- forgetting that she was heading into the all-fear-all-the-time black hole that is U.S. aviation."
On Saturday, Caroline Roberts blogged (at Bostonist) that "our feelings regarding her are changing from 'crazy biotch' to 'garden-variety geek.' Simpson appears to be a classic case of book-smart but not social-smart."
"What happened is so grossly wrong on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin," Brandon Keim thundered yesterday at the Wired Science blog. "Since when did a circuit board on a sweatshirt look like a bomb? Since when did suicide bombers walk around with bombs on the outside of their clothing? If the people in charge of protecting us are stupid enough to think this, how hard would it be for real bombers to fool them?"
Letters in today's Boston Globe mostly support Simpson. Read them for yourself.
Brainiac reader Jonathan B emails: "It's not even that bad that they arrested her. What's bad is that they had a press conference bragging about how they protected the airport from a homework project, and reaffirming that we are under a constant terror threat 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 even though the actual event was completely innocuous. It's fine to be suspicious, and it's fine to detain someone briefly while you sort things out, but it's wrong to over-react with guns drawn on an innocent person, brag about it, and use it as an excuse to further your campaign of fear. If they press charges to cover for their own ineptitude, that will be even worse."
Gene T, another Brainiac reader, emails: "I live in California and yesterday at work, EVERYONE was laughing at Boston because of yet another over-reaction to something totally harmless. Now that most of the world is aware that terrorists can and do use cell phones as detonation devices for bombs, potentially every cell phone in Boston is a 'hoax device.' Every 9 volt battery is a potential 'hoax device' component. When will this insanity end, Boston? When will your authorities INVESTIGATE before making charges?"
You make the call, readers!
As for me, I stand by what I blogged on Friday: "It's highly doubtful that Simpson was trying to hoax anyone. I'm glad that the troopers at Logan are vigilant; but they should not have arrested that poor young woman."
At worst, as I argued on Friday, Simpson's action might be compared to that of someone who utters the word "bomb" or "hijack" at an airport -- not in a threating way, but in a careless way. Howie Carr no doubt believes that anyone who says those words should be arrested and charged with terrorism, but I disagree. So does the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. According to a bulletin issued by the CATSA in May, which was published in the Readings section of the current issue of Harper's magazine, a "false declaration" like "I have a bomb in my bag" or "He is going to hijack the aircraft" requires emergency procedures; but a "careless or inflammatory statement" like "There's no bomb in my shoe" or "This security does nothing to stop hijacking" requires only cursory attention. Maybe Simpson -- who is currently banned from Logan, and who could face as many as 6 months in prison for a disorderly conduct charge, and 5 years for the possession of a hoax device -- is guilty of carelessness. But that's it!
Simspon has received much more than cursory attention. I say she shouldn't spend a single day behind bars. Drop the charges and leave her alone. Let's all move on.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.