Economist Detained for Doing Math on an Airplane
An economics professor was detained when he was spotted doing math on an airplane:
On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man —with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent— boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.
Or so dozens of unsuspecting passengers thought.
The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over. He was wearing navy Diesel jeans and a red Lacoste sweater—a look he would later describe as “simple elegance”—but something about him didn’t seem right to her.
She decided to try out some small talk.
Is Syracuse home? She asked.
No, he replied curtly.
He similarly deflected further questions. He appeared laser-focused —perhaps too laser-focused —on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.
Rebuffed, the woman began reading her book. Or pretending to read, anyway. Shortly after boarding had finished, she flagged down a flight attendant and handed that crew-member a note of her own.
This story ended better than some. Economics professor Guido Menzio (yes, he’s Italian) was taken off the plane, questioned, cleared, and allowed to board with the rest of his passengers two hours later.
This is a result of our stupid “see something, say something” culture. As I repeatedly say: “If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.”
On the other hand, “Algebra, of course, does have Arabic origins plus math is used to make bombs.” Plus, this fine joke from 2003:
At Heathrow Airport today, an individual, later discovered to be a school teacher, was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a compass, a protractor, and a graphical calculator.
Authorities believe she is a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement. She is being charged with carrying weapons of math instruction.
Seriously, though, I worry that this kind of thing will happen to me. I’m older, and I’m not very Semitic looking, but I am curt to my seatmates and intently focused on what I am doing—which sometimes involves looking at web pages about, and writing about, security and terrorism. I’m sure I’m vaguely suspicious.
EDITED TO ADD: Last month a student was removed from an airplane for speaking Arabic.
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