Star Simpson • 20 September 2008 • The SnowBlog
First off, I'm pleased to see that charges have been dropped against the reporters at Democracy Now!. You recall they were covering a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention and were arrested for participating in it and obstructing police. Granted, I'm not psychic and I don't know what happened, but they did film their arrests and they're established and award-winning reporters, so it was always going to be a bit of a stretch to believe they put down their cameras and sneaked in a bit of rioting.
But elsewhere, the story of Star Simpson suggests equal levels of official paranoia. Star was an MIT student who went to pick up a friend from the airport a year ago. It was chilly so she put on a sweatshirt. Unfortunately for her, the sweatshirt was one she'd modified for an art project. It had wires and a breadboard on the front which could light up a group of LEDs. While asking for information at the airport, the official she was talking to noticed the electronics and concluded it was a bomb. Star tried to explain it was no such thing, but state police with machine guns arrived and arrested her. They confiscated the pink plastic flower she'd brought as a gift for her friend - it had looked to the panicked official like a detonation device. There was a massive amount of press coverage. Once it was clear there were no explosives involved, most press coverage seemed to suggest Star staged the whole thing as a hoax and to get attention.
Eventually the hoax charge has been dropped. She has been charged with the equivalent of disorderly conduct and required to perform fifty hours of community service and make a public apology to the city. As she points out, in her soft-spoken way, the police statement at the time of her arrest said that she did the right thing for doing exactly as she was told by the police, because otherwise they would have shot her. But doing exactly as she was told has morphed into disorderly conduct.
Star was in a section of the airport open to the public and she'd passed through no security checks. Under local firearms laws she'd be allowed to carry a gun plus up to eleven pounds of ammunition with her. Instead she had a 9v battery, some LEDs, a plastic board with wires on it and a pink, homemade flower. Her college, MIT, called her conduct 'reckless' and said that the alarm it caused was 'understandable'. That, plus people spitting on her in the street, has led her to drop out of college and relocate.
Lots of people have suggested that she was criminally stupid for wearing a shirt with electronics on it to an airport. Certainly it seems that (as I've mentioned before) airports are the places where nail scissors and soft drinks morph into weapons and explosives. Star admits that she hadn't realised that green leds and wires on a sweatshirt, rather than looking pretty, were somehow bomb-like. I suppose one could criticise her judgement, but given that she turned them off and tried to explain as soon as she realised, it's not clear to me why an incident like this would ever need to get as far as armed arrests and multiple press conferences.
The purpose of terrorism is to make us consistently over-react like this, to make us afraid of everything and everyone, and what I absolutely don't get is why we believe that following the terrorists' agenda in this way is somehow fighting back. But this level of paranoia, where a nerdy girl holding a plastic flower, came within a hair's breadth of being shot as a terrorist surely can't be the right response to those trying to disrupt our society. And any attempt to make out that she deserved what happened to her next just proves to me that we're getting more than a little confused about what 'defending our freedoms' should involve. We're supposed to be protecting people like Star, allowing them to be a little naive, not making their innocence a crime. It certainly doesn't make me feel any safer.