Of LED art, suspicion, and a girl named Star

Automated disclaimer: This post was written more than 15 years ago and I may not have looked at it since.

Older posts may not align with who I am today and how I would think or write, and may have been written in reaction to a cultural context that no longer applies. Some of my high school or college posts are just embarrassing. However, I have left them public because I believe in keeping old web pages aliveā€”and it's interesting to see how I've changed.

Star Simpson, the 19-year-old arrested at Logan airport for having a "hoax device", is just another living, breathing, hoping, dreaming human, like you. Essentially, she was arrested for being an idealist, for not understanding that the people with the guns and the power see "different" as "dangerous".

The following was written by a friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous, but gave permission to share it.

Recently a girl from MIT -- a friend of friends of mine -- was arrested at Boston Logan Airport for wearing a little green star (her name is Star) made out of LEDs on the front of her sweatshirt while holding play-doh. The star was in a circuit board, or bread board, to which there was nothing attached other than a 9-volt battery and some scotch tape. She had asked airline staff where a flight was coming in, by all accounts seemed pretty out of it when talking to them, and wandered off instead of sticking around to answer questions. She was promptly surrounded by men with machine guns.

One advantage of a personal blog is that you are not prevented by media artifacts or commercial necessity from saying everything you want to. I've been trying to say what I actually think lately, and I do that below, at some length. To the extent you have the time and energy, you might enjoy trying that yourself.

The press has had a great time with this story, deliberately (I think) botching the facts and using it as an excuse to say truly hateful things. I suggest that you don't read any of it, especially the Boston Herald, unless you have a very good reason (e.g. you are derspatchel and you are writing a song about it). Many non-journalists have just shaken their heads and said "gee, isn't that stupid". Just to be clear: I am not targeting this post at anybody in particular (although, if it happens to nail the Herald, I will shed no tears).

We are talking about a little green LED star and a 9-volt battery, a bread board, play-doh, and a socially awkward (at least early in the morning) nineteen-year-old girl.

[added later: Imagine it was you behind that counter when Star came to talk to you, and imagine you were asking her about her sweatshirt. I think what you would have seen would have been a sweet, nerdy, potentially sleep-deprived (and, as a commenter has pointed out, hot) teenage girl with an awesome sweatshirt. And I don't think any of you would have failed to get a satisfactory -- if not cheerful -- response out of her when you asked about it. All the words of the people from Logan sound, strung together, possibly suspicious, but this is not abstract. It is never abstract when someone is pointing a machine gun at you. I keep using her name because Star Simpson is a real live human being, and if probably no one I know would have actually found her suspicious in person, something is seriously wrong somewhere, and I don't think it's with us.]

Instead of pointlessly asking "what was she thinking?", here's what I wish the press had asked, because I'd really like to know the answers:

  • Would an actual terrorist go walking around with a circuit board, but no other visible electronics strapped to them? Did the little green LED star make it more or less suspicious? I'd really like to know the answer to that last question. What about the nine-volt battery?
  • What, in fact, do Boston law enforcement find so amazingly suspicious generally about circuit boards and LEDs? Is there any evidence at all that any terrorist anywhere has ever used a device with a visible circuit board or LEDs?
  • Would an actual terrorist in possession of a large quantity of plastic explosives be going around Logan Airport openly holding it in their hands, playing with it like therapy putty, with no wires attached to it, in full view of the public?
  • Why was it not an option to have a single security guard approach her and politely ask her to prove she wasn't wearing an explosive vest beneath her sweatshirt? Wouldn't an actual suicide bomber just detonate their explosives immediately when threatened? Even if some ability to exercise force was necessary, what is the sound tactical logic -- and I want details, not platitudes -- making it reasonable to handle this situation with so many people and in so harsh a manner?
  • Is social awkwardness suspicious behavior? How do we feel about it if it is? How many other nineteen-year-olds would have handled that situation as gracefully as Star, and thus survived, once surrounded by men with machine guns?
  • Everyone keeps saying "but it's Boston Logan, and post-9/11" as if that should mean something obvious to all (although, maybe to their credit, some journalists seem to think a little better of Star because she was from Hawaii and would know less about us). What, exactly, do you expect travelers to know about Boston when they come here? That our law enforcement personnel are trigger-happy and think possession of any non-commercial constructed object is suspicious? How do you plan to communicate this to travelers? Are you going to print it in their language, or perhaps broadcast it over the airport PA in their language? How about in little "Welcome to Boston!" guides for all incoming college students? Is this an impression of Boston that you are comfortable with people taking back with them?
  • Is there any reason -- any at all -- to think that giving machine guns to people in Logan Airport accomplishes anything beyond making those people more likely to use those machine guns? The people responsible for the people with machine guns have used this incident to make sure everyone knows what little provocation it would take before they opened fire. You are supposed to sleep better at night knowing this. Do you? I just want to point out, because this matters to some people, that I am generally suspicious of gun control and I believe the Second Amendment was intended to secure an individual right. I'm not anti-gun, but I am anti-threatening-girls-with-machine-guns-unnecessarily.
  • Here's a question I haven't seen anyone else ask: would this have happened to someone whose skin was a little less brown? (Star is a native Hawaiian so far as I know.) What if her hair looked a little more Caucasian? What would journalists have said if she had been observed talking on her cell phone in Hawaiian?
  • Why do newspapers feel the need to report that her boyfriend, who she was at the airport to meet, is much older than she is? Regardless of whether his age is being correctly reported (and I don't care whether it is), what exactly is supposed to be genuinely scandalous about that? By all accounts Star is charismatic and attractive enough to get any number of MIT boys to date her (and with my friends, who accept polyamory as normal, I really do mean any number). Maybe she knows something the journalists don't. Maybe they are jealous. Would they pounce on this story more or less if the genders were reversed? What if she had been waiting for her girlfriend?


Here's something I didn't like writing. It is far, far more important than the rest of this post, even if it's not what I mostly wrote about. I very much don't want to know the answer to this:

Why should an event like this ever be an excuse for mean-spiritedness? What sort of person do you have to be to say venom-dripping, hateful things about Star Simpson?

A digression on the legal case:

She is, I think, officially charged with possession of a hoax device and disorderly conduct, to which she pleaded not guilty. I don't know anything about how disorderly conduct cases play out, but I understand the hoax device statute has an intent element -- intent to make other people actually think the device is a bomb. In any sane world she should have an airtight defense to that charge, and the prosecutor should get their head ripped off in court (figuratively speaking) by an aggressive civil rights attorney. My wholly uneducated guess is that there will be some sort of settlement, though, similar to the last LED-art scare. Given that she has her own life to get on with, which might matter more to her than some moral point related to the legal system of a crazy city that is not her home, I would absolutely respect that choice. I would, though, love to see someone use a case like this to put the city on trial, complete with a parade of expert witnesses and amicus briefs, so that we as a society can fight out our questions in a formal setting. It might be possible to do this in a civil case, but I'm unaware of any plans to do so (I would be partial to using a diverse group of artists seeking a declaratory judgment that certain behaviors are not illegal).

Sometimes you have to choose to live as if the world is the way it should be. That is what Star Simpson did, and it is normally unremarkable. Everyone does this to some extent every day, most of it unconsciously. Think of all of your little quirks, all the things you do that hardly anyone else does. For how many of them do you think you should be expected to ask yourself "Will this get me surrounded by angry men with machine guns?" Everyone on earth does weird things constantly, if you take the time to notice, and everyone draws a line somewhere that says "this is how much I am going to worry about looking weird, and no more." I happen to like where Star drew her line. I want to live in that world.

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Responses: 3 so far Feed icon

  1. Captain Crunch says:

    Excellent analysis of the case!

    But I'm not sure about your skin color point. The person who freaked out and called in the SWAT team was named Maria Moncayo. Based on her name, I would guess Moncayo is at least as brown as Star Simpson.

    Also, if Star was such a threatening being, it amazes me that she got as far as Moncayo's desk without being challenged. That area crawls with cops. I can't help it but believe some of them saw Star and thought, top of the morning, yet another geek!

  2. Tim McCormack says:

    I can't help it but believe some of them saw Star and thought, top of the morning, yet another geek!

    Exactly. I mean, this is Boston, home of MIT. As one commenter put it: "Why wouldn't an MIT person have LEDs on their sweatshirt?"

  3. Lost in the Groove Blog -- Police addendum: more food for thought says:

    [...] the earlier discussion interested you, you might also want to check out this post by one Tim McCormack. Tim and his anonymously quoted source, both of whom are apparently a bit [...]

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