Monday, September 24, 2007

Another thing to get before it slips too far away

Something that the arrest of Star Simpson got me thinking about was the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer notoriously wrongly convicted of treason in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. Specifically, that there is one way in which the cases overlap.

No, I am not comparing Star Simpson to Alfred Dreyfus and I am not comparing the Boston jail to Devil's Island. Pay attention. I said in one way, which I am about to explain.

It quickly became obvious to many observers that Dreyfus was innocent, especially when the French military stonewalled the case of the man who proved to be the actual traitor, one Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Emile Zola became interested in the case, leading to the publication of one of the most famous open letters ever written. The title was "J'accuse!" and it shredded the official story.

The point of this digression is that at one point, discussing the "evidence" presented against Dreyfus at his court-martial, Zola wrote
He knew several languages: a crime! He carried no compromising papers: a crime! He would occasionally visit his country of origin: a crime! He was hard-working, and strove to be well informed: a crime! He did not become flustered: a crime! He became flustered: a crime!
Zola's clear point being that once the decision had been made that Dreyfus was guilty, everything was interpreted that way, everything became proof of guilt.

A surprising amount of the commentary about Star Simpson has taken the same tack: The assumption has been made that she is guilty, apparently simply because the police say so, and everything about the case is described based on that assumption - so everything she did or didn't do is taken as evidence of her guilt.

And - I'm tempted to say "of course" - the story grew in whatever way was necessary to maintain that notion. In reading various responses and comments on them I was struck by how many times, how disturbingly, disgustingly, distressingly, disconcertingly many times, the police version was simply swallowed whole and washed down with a glassful of imagined details. Over and over, Simpson was described as having "a fake bomb." She was blamed for having "snubbed" the clerk and it was claimed she was "edgy" and "nervous," none of which appeared in a single news account I saw and are terms which Major Pare did not use in his news conference after the arrest. In a response to my post below, it even became that she "avoided security when questioned."

And the psych 101 devotees had a field day with her statement that she wore the device because she wanted to stand out at career day at school. That, in their minds, became clear proof that she "just wanted attention" and in fact wanted to provoke an incident at the airport with her "fake bomb."

Which brings up the other point I wanted to address on this: The underlying message is that she brought all of it on herself. Whether deliberately or accidentally, it doesn't matter - she brought it on herself by standing out from the crowd. By being noticeable. By being noticed.

There is a renewed drive, one riding the wave of carefully sown and reaped fear, toward socially-enforced conformity. Because that's how you stay safe, that's how you avoid getting into trouble. Don't stand out, don't be different, don't attract attention, don't do anything that might upset anyone - because if you do you run the risk of being thought a threat, of being faced with guns, and if you panic, get flustered, freeze up, or otherwise refuse to instantly "comply with instructions" you can get shot down and if you are it's all your fault for not being sufficiently unobtrusive and compliant. So much of what is being said about Simpson, obvious even from a cursory look, comes down to "she should have known better." If not that she should have known better than to try to provoke a reaction with her "fake bomb," then that she should have known better than to think her artwork wouldn't cause an official panic. Or, expressed positively, she should have known that it would cause an official panic and so not worn it.

That is, she should have anticipated that a plastic circuit board with some blinking LEDs would flip out authorities. She should have realized that anything out of the ordinary would have the machine guns coming out. She should have looked herself over, carefully and methodically, to eliminate anything that any official could possibly construe as maybe somehow suspicious - and upon arrival she had to make sure that her behavior was equally unnoteworthy. That, we were told in multiple cases, would have been the "reasonable" thing to do. Embrace the fear. Make it yours.

(Parenthetical question: If this device was so suspicious, how come it appears that no one in the entire freaking airport other than this one clerk thought it worthy of notice?)

But of course, and showing how stupid this whole thing is, not standing out is exactly what any successful bomber is going to want to do. Blending in, being unworthy of particular notice, is precisely what they are after. So we close in on ourselves, point with suspicion to the oddballs, the ones who stand out, the ones who seem, we say through narrowed eyes, "strange." We limit our options, cast doubt on eccentricity, declare self-expression a security risk - and in thus crippling our souls still don't do a damned thing to make ourselves one bit more secure.

Footnote One: Why am I not surprised by this from the Boston Herald for Sunday:
Prosecutors plan to pursue charges against the MIT sophomore who triggered Friday’s security scramble at Logan International Airport, but may face daunting odds obtaining a conviction, according to legal analysts.

“I don’t think you could get 12 out of 12 jurors to agree this student actually meant for people to think she had a bomb,” said Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense lawyer. “A suicide bomber is going to hide the bomb, not wear it on the front of their shirt.”

“It could be quite difficult to obtain a conviction,” agreed Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
There were a few other things in that article worth mentioning. One is the remark by Rose that the cops may well have had probable cause "to stop and search and maybe arrest her if she’s someone wearing wires at an airport and doesn’t answer questions.” Arrest her? Since there is no legal requirement for you to supply a cop with any information other than your name, on precisely what charge is someone arrested for "wearing wires?" The truth is, I'm not overly impressed with the MCLU; it too often seems too willing to go "well, maybe to cops have a case" on some civil liberties question. I was really upset with them back in 2004 when the Boston transit police announced they were going to start random searches of people riding the T (the Boston bus and subway system). At the time, Rose said the policy was "deeply flawed" but said well, sure, she understood the need for security. In another quote not included in the linked post, the group said they thought the searches would be okay so long as they were truly random. So, yeah, violations of the Fourth Amendment are okay so long as they're "random." I'm deeply impressed.

Also in the Herald piece there was retired Superior Court Judge Robert Barton, who allowed as how Simpson "shouldn’t have to live forever branded as a terrorist" but called her a "fool" who needs to "gets her head screwed on straight" - apparently endorsing the official storyline that the incident was something she knowingly provoked - before suggesting that
it has to be the right time before (prosecutors) give her a break because they can’t set a precedent too soon after the incident.
Right. She can be called a fool, publicly denounced, mocked and ridiculed as either a boneheaded provocateur or a clueless airhead, but god forbid the prosecutor should be a touch embarrassed by bringing these insane charges.

Oh, but the best was Jake Wark, spokesman for DA Daniel Conley, who said without a hint of irony,
Like it or not, we live in a world in which a person might target an airport.... There’s a reason why police patrol that area with canines and machine guns. This wasn’t a cartoon character she was wearing.
Considering how Boston police reacted to LED-lit cartoon characters in January, why are we supposed to think that would make a difference?

Footnote Two: An excellent illustration of what I've been talking about is on the same page as that Boston Herald story. (Although it may not be there later, I believe this is changed every day.) The "Herald Pulse" poll has this question:
How do you interpret Star Simpson's actions at Logan International Airport?
- She was making an artistic statement.
- She was making a political statement.
- She was looking for attention and she got it.
- She must have missed the news reports on Sept. 11 2001. Otherwise there's no excuse.
That is, she either was making a "statement," just trying to get attention, or mind-bogglingly unaware of the world around her. There is no option under which the official reaction could be other than reasonable. The paranoid reaction of the desk clerk, the panicked grabbing for the heavy artillery, the official sigh of relief that they didn't have to blow her fucking head off - all absolutely rational, exactly what we should want, and eminently, oh yes very eminently, reasonable.

The times are getting darker.

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