Monday, April 09, 2007

Separating theorem 

There's a little buzz running around about a well-known professor of constitutional law, Walter Murphy from Princeton (now retired to New Mexico), who was stopped from boarding a flight after being told he was on the Terrorist Watch list. (Here's an example of the telling from Balkin's blog. It was emailed around campus here last night.) The short story: The clerk at the ticket counter asks a few questions and when Professor Murphy revealed he had given a speech critical of President Bush, the clerk says "that'll do it." From this the professor concludes he was targeted by the government for dissenting from the Administration on such things as the war and the Patriot Act, and then descends into some Bush-bashing.

A few weeks after 9/11 I got a call to interview for a job in DC. I had to fly to Dulles two days after the phone call; my ticket was FedEx'd. My ticket had an 'S' after my name. Turns out this meant I was to be searched before every flight, and my bags picked over, because I had my ticket booked so close to when I was flying. The airline's computer did this to all tickets issued within 72 hours of flight with same-day turnarounds. The search included being patted down and bags searched (I had no checked luggage.) I've never had it quite so bad since, but suffice to say being Armenian doesn't exactly help me through airports.

I do a fair amount of international travel, too. US airports used to be much easier than European. Now they're only slightly better, and some of them are below better Euro airports. I am accustomed to being stopped in airports there for FWLA -- flying while looking Arabic -- and that doesn't happen here in the States. Here, when I get stopped, it's because some damn computer put an S next to my name.

Understanding that doesn't make it any more pleasant. And I can imagine in a less-guarded moment dashing off some florid letter to a constitutional law discussion list in order to vent. The letter now has entered public discourse and is being used as further indictment of the Patriot Act and the administration.

But what do we really know from this story? We really don't know why he was on the list. The clerk is not a government official; his or her statements are conjecture. Did his anti-Bush speech place him on the list? We have little data about that. The peace marches maybe, but it's again a leap that requires you to believe ill of the Administration first. As Johnny Carson always said, "buy the premise, buy the bit." Don't you think the list is created as much by software programmed with errors more than someone sitting in a dark basement under the White House saying, "oh, that guy"? All software is buggy and needs refinement; the software that put the S next to my name doesn't do that any more. Obviously here's another place that needs fixing, but we don't know from this telling what to fix.

A commenter on the discussion list wrote to me that the clerk's dataset was just as plausible as a computer error. But the clerk doesn't have data; the clerk at best is relating two anecdotes and conjecturing the causal link. It's certainly possible, but in the absence of data doesn't provide a test of the hypothesis.

UPDATE: Owen Kerr has similar thoughts.