I now know firsthand what it’s like to be arrested by armed police officers, handcuffed, and sharply interrogated, while one’s wife and children look on helplessly. This is not a prank post.
It happened in Philadelphia International Airport. As someone who was born in Philadelphia, and who’s since visited ~40 countries on 6 continents and flies every week or two, I’ve long considered PHL possibly the most depressing airport on the planet (and the competition is fierce).
I’d just eaten dinner with my wife Dana and our two kids in a food court—after a day of travel that had already, before this happened, involved a missed flight and a lost suitcase, owing to a chain of mishaps that I’d (probably melodramatically) been describing to Dana as insane beyond the collective imagination of Homer and Shakespeare and Tolstoy and the world’s other literary giants to invent. Again, that was before my arrest.
Two large uniformed men with holstered pistols saw me as we were exiting the airport, surrounded and handcuffed me, and demanded that I confess.
“I’m … sorry, officers,” I managed. “I don’t understand what this is about.”
“Stop the games. You know exactly what you took. We have it all on video. Where is it?”
Me, a thief? I felt terrified to be at the beginning of a Kafka story. But if I’m going to be brutally honest about it, I also felt … secretly vindicated in my irrational yet unshakeable beliefs that
- the laws of probability are broken, capricious horribleness reigning supreme over the universe,
- I’m despised by a large fraction of the world just for being who I am, and
- it’s only a matter of time until big, scary armed guys come for me, as they came for so many other nerdy misfits.
I almost wanted to say to the police: where have you been? I’ve been expecting you my whole life. And I wanted to say to Dana: you see?? see what I’ve been telling you all these years, about the nature of the universe we were born into?
Dana, for her part, was remonstrating with the officers that there must be some misunderstanding, that her husband was often absentminded but it’s completely impossible that he stole anything. The officers brushed her away, told her to remove the kids from the situation.
“Are you gonna come clean?” one of the cops barked at me. “We know you took it.”
“I didn’t take anything.” Then I thought it over more. “Or if somehow I did … then I’m certain that it would’ve been an accident, and I’d be more than happy to fix the…”
“Wait, if you did? It sounds like you just confessed!”
“No, I definitely didn’t steal anything. I’m just saying it’s possible that I might have mistakenly…”
“Your answers are rambling and all over the place. Stop making up stories. We know you did it.”
I’m not proud of myself for the next part, but the officers were so serious, and somehow I had to make them realize the sheer comical absurdity of what was happening. “Look, I’m a computer science professor,” I said. “I’ve never stolen a penny in my life, and it’s not something I’d ever…”
“Yeah, well I’m a police officer. I’ve seen a lot in my thirty years in this job. This is not about who you are, it’s about what you did.”
But what did I do? After many more attempts to intimidate me, I was finally informed of the charge: “that smoothie place over there says you stole cash from their tip jar.” Huh? How much? One of the officers returned from the smoothie bar, and said, a bit sheepishly: “they say it was $4.”
Now a vague recollection came into sharper focus. Yes, I had bought a berry smoothie for my daughter and a sparkling grapefruit juice for me. I’d paid with a debit card, for reasons that I don’t remember, even though I normally pay cash. My mind was elsewhere: on the missed flight, the lost suitcase, the brazen behavior of American Airlines (about which more later). Then, completely forgetting I hadn’t paid cash this time, I looked down for my change: $4 in an unmarked plastic change cup. I collected the change, put it in my wallet, then completely forgot about it.
After a minute, an employee angrily pointed down at a tray that the plastic cup was on (though not clearly at the cup itself), and said “hey, the tips go here!” So I took a dollar from my wallet and put it on the tray. I thought: this guy has some chutzpah, to demand a tip, and for an over-the-counter smoothie! But whatever, he probably needs the dollar more than I do. So if it will make him stop being angry…
But he was still angry. He repeated: “this here is for tips!”
I said something to the effect of: “yeah, I know–that’s what you just told me, isn’t it? So that’s why I just left you a tip!” Sheesh.
At no point did he ever say, “you accidentally took from the tip jar,” or any other statement that would’ve clarified his meaning.
As I turned and walked away, I thought: yes, this is the strange world I was born into. A world where people yell at me for not tipping at a smoothie bar–is that expected? I didn’t think it was–and then continue yelling even after I do. But what did I expect? Did I expect, as a nerdy outsider, to be able to buy normal people’s toleration with mere money?
As soon as I figured out what had happened, of course I offered to pay back the smoothie bar, not merely the $3 I still owed them, but $40 or whatever other amount would express my goodwill and compensate them for their trouble. But the smoothie bar returned the $40 that I’d asked Dana to give them—I was unable to bring it myself on account of being handcuffed—and refused to press charges. (In fact, apparently the employees hadn’t wanted to involve the police at all. It was the manager, who hadn’t seen what happened, who’d insisted on it.)
So with no case, the police finally had no choice but to let me go–though not before giving me a stern lecture about never again putting my hands on stuff that’s not mine.
A week later, I’m still processing the experience. In the rest of the post, I’d like to reflect on some lessons I think I learned from it.
First, it’s said that “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.” It’s true: there are aspects of being arrested that are hard to understand until you’ve been through it. While I’m white (well, insofar as Ashkenazim are), and while both officers who interrogated me happened to be African-Americans, what I went through further increased my sympathy for the many minority victims of aggressive policing. Sitting in your armchair, it’s easy to think: in a liberal democracy, as long you know you did nothing wrong, even if you got arrested, frisked, detained, there’d probably be no real need to panic. All you’d need to do is calmly clear up the misunderstanding and be back on your merry way.
But at least in my experience, an actual arrest isn’t like that. The presumption of innocence, Miranda rights, all the things you might learn about in civics class—none of it seems to play any role. From the very beginning, there’s an overwhelming presumption of guilt. Everything you say gets interpreted as if you’re a red-handed criminal trying to fabricate a story, no matter how strained and how ludicrous such an interpretation might become.
And something strange happened: the officers seemed so certain I was guilty, that after only a few minutes I started to feel guilty. I still had only a hazy sense of my “crime,” but I knew I was going to be punished for it, and I only hoped that the punishment wouldn’t tear me away from my family and previous life forever.
I came away from this incident with a visceral feel for just how easy it would be to procure a false confession from someone, which I didn’t have before but which will now stay with me as long as I live.
Second, it occurred to me that the sight of me, stuttering and potbellied complexity blogger, shackled and interrogated by armed policemen demanding that he confess to the theft of $3 from an airport stand, is a decent visual metaphor for much of my life. If you doubt this, simply imagine Arthur Chu or Amanda Marcotte in place of the police officers.
It’s like: my accusers arrive on the scene committed to a specific, hostile theory of me: that I’m a petty thief of smoothie bars, let’s say, or a sexual-harassment-loving misogynist. With all due modesty, people who know me might say that it’s not merely that I don’t fit the theory, that I happen to be innocent of the charge. Rather, it’s that I’m one of the most astronomically, ridiculously unlikely people to fit the theory you could ever meet. Not because I’m especially saintly, but simply because I already walk around all day feeling like my right to exist is conditional and might be revoked at any minute. Breaking the normal people’s rules is the last thing on my agenda! And yes, I still often feel that way, even as a professor with an endowed chair and awards and whatever. The only times when I really relax, among strangers, is when everyone’s there to discuss ideas.
But my accusers don’t know any of that, or they refuse to believe it. Everything I say gets interpreted in the light of the hostile theory, and therefore serves only as further confirmation of it. Ironically—and this is key—the very unusual personality traits that make me so unlikely to be an offender, are also what throw off my accusers’ detection algorithms, and make them double down on their wrong theory. When I’m trapped, I tend to fall back on the only tools I know: argument, openness, frank confession of my mistakes and failings, sometimes a little self-deprecating humor. Unfortunately, I find this often backfires, as my accusers see in my vulnerability a golden opportunity to mount another wretched evildoer above their fireplace.
Or, to go even further out on a psychoanalytic limb: I sometimes get the sense that it gradually does dawn on my accusers that I’m not who they thought I was. And then, far from prompting an apology, that realization seems to make my accusers even angrier, as if my throwing off their model of reality so badly, was an even worse offense than actually being guilty of whatever they thought! A thief, a misogynist, they know how to handle. But a living, breathing adversarial example for their worldview?
Dana, who watched the entire arrest, tells me that the central mistake I made was to try to reason with the police officers: “you say I took $3 that wasn’t mine? If so, then I’m sure it was an accident, so let’s try to figure out what happened so we can fix it…” In Dana’s view, what I saw as an earnest desire to get to the bottom of things, came across to grizzled cops only as evasiveness and guilt. She says it would’ve been far better if I’d categorically denied: “no, I did not steal. That’s completely absurd. Please release me immediately.”
I’ve asked myself: how do you live in a world where, again and again, you can choose the hard right path over the easy wrong one, and then see your choice gleefully wielded against you? Where you can spill your guts out to your accusers, in a desperate attempt to talk with them not as hardened warriors, but one confused and vulnerable human to another–and your reward is (to take one example) your picture in Salon above the headline “The Plight of the Bitter Nerd”?
The only way to live in such a world, as far as I can see, is to remind yourself that sometimes openness and vulnerability work. In the course of my arrest, the two officers gradually differentiated themselves into a “good cop” and a “bad cop.” While the “bad cop” treated me till the end like an unrepentant kleptomaniac being freed on a technicality, the “good cop,” who talked to me and Dana much more, became almost apologetic: “look man, when we get a call that someone stole money, we have to treat it like that’s the situation, you understand what I’m saying? And then if it’s not, well then it’s not.” Likewise, Arthur Chu recently tweeted that he’s “unhappy about [my] continued existence”–i.e., on a straightforward reading, that he wants me to die. But I try to remind myself every day that the human race doesn’t consist solely of Arthur Chus (or Amanda Marcottes, or Lubos Motls, or SneerClub posters, or Paul Manaforts or Donald Trumps). The world contains millions of women and men of every background and ideology who want actual dialogue, many of whom I’m lucky to count as friends, many of whom I met through this blog. Vulnerability is possible because the world is not uniformly evil.
Third, I emerged from my arrest with a self-help technique that’s probably well-known to somebody, but that was new to me, and that I hope others will find as useful as I’m finding it. Here it is: when something freakishly bad happens to you, draw a directed graph of all the known causes of the event, and the causes of the causes, and so forth as far back as you can trace them. Also draw all the known measures that could have blocked the causal path leading to the bad event, and what prevented those measures from working or from being tried.
For example: why did I end up in handcuffs? Firstly because, earlier in the day, Lily threw a temper tantrum that prevented us from packing and leaving for Logan Airport on time. Because there was also heavy traffic on the way there. Because we left from Harvard Square, and failed to factor in the extra 10 minutes to reach the airport, compared to if we’d left from MIT. Because online check-in didn’t work. Because when we did arrive, (barely) on time, the contemptuous American Airlines counter staff deliberately refused to check us in, chatting as we stewed impotently, so that we’d no longer be on time and they could legally give our seats away to others, and strand us in an airport with two young kids. Because the only replacement flight was in a different terminal. Because, in the stress of switching terminals–everything is stressful with two kids in an airport–I lost our suitcase. Because the only shuttle to get back to the terminal went around the long way, and was slow as molasses, and by the time I returned our suitcase had been taken by the bomb squad. Because the stress of such events bears down on me like an iron weight, and makes me unable to concentrate on the reality in front of me. Because the guy at the smoothie counter and I failed to communicate. Because the police chose to respond (or were trained to respond), not by politely questioning me to try to understand what had happened, but by handcuffing me and presuming guilt.
I actually drew the graph, filled a notebook page with it–and when I searched it for answers, neither I nor the world got off easily. Looking over the strange chain of events that led to my arrest, I could find much to support my “default narrative,” that the laws of probability are broken and the universe is grotesquely awful. But also, my belief in the universe’s grotesque awfulness clearly played a role in the events. Had I been able maintain a calm demeanor, I would not have made so many mistakes.
Again and again, I screwed up. Again and again, airport personnel responded to my honest mistakes with a maximum of cold bureaucracy rather than commonsense discussion: the booting from the flight, the bomb squad, the handcuffs.
We tend to think of bureaucracy as a mere nuisance, the person behind the counter at the Department of Motor Vehicles who makes you wait all day and then sends you home to get a different form of ID. In my view, though, the bureaucratic impulse is one of the worst evils of which the human mind is capable. It is, after all, the impulse that once sent trainloads of Jewish children to their deaths because that was the policy and there were no documents stating that any exception should be made in this case. Today it’s the impulse that rounds up and deports people who’ve lived in the US for decades, sometimes served in the army, etc., and that separates screaming children from their parents. To me, the mindset that willingly carries out such orders is almost more terrifying than the mindset that gives the orders in the first place. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that my arrest was even a trillionth as bad as those other things; at most I got a tiny, accidental taste of many less fortunate people’s daily reality. But it’s worth remembering: every time you exercise official power over another person without even trying to talk it over first, clear up any honest misunderstandings, find out if there’s a reasonable explanation, you’re surrendering to one of the most destructive impulses in the history of civilization.
May we each strive to kill the bureaucrat in us and nurture the human being.
I’m in Mexico City this week, to participate in a computer science and philosophy conference at UNAM and then give a broad quantum computing talk at CViCom 2018. Because of this, responses to this post might be delayed.
(Update: But I’m having a wonderful time in Mexico! Lots of delicious mole and horchata, and no arrests so far. Today I gave my survey talk on P vs. NP. I opened with the following icebreaker: “As a computer scientist speaking in a philosophy institute, I apologize that my talk will contain very little philosophy Also, as an American speaking in Mexico, I apologize for our president.”)
My friend Elette Boyle asked me to announce that the 2018 CRYPTO conference, to be held in Santa Barbara, will be preceded by exciting workshops, including one that I’ll be speaking at myself entitled Beyond Crypto: A Theory Perspective. Register now if you’re interested.
Huge congratulations to Costis Daskalakis, my former MIT colleague, for winning the Nevanlinna Prize for his work in algorithmic game theory! While I don’t pretend to understand their work, congratulations to the four new Fields Medalists as well.
I put a new preprint online: Quantum Lower Bound for Approximate Counting Via Laurent Polynomials.
I’ve added a new blog to my blogroll: The Unit of Caring. I’ve been impressed by the author’s moral adeptness: when she addresses contentious debates among nerds, rationalists, feminists, SJWs, etc. etc., she often seems perfectly balanced on an atom-thin tightrope, even as some of us are plummetting left and right.
I forgot to mention this earlier, but I’m now a donor to the campaign of Beto O’Rourke, as he strives to unseat the quisling Ted Cruz in my adopted home state of Texas. Americans: please consider donating as well!
Further Thoughts (Aug. 9):
- I wholeheartedly endorse an observation that many commenters (on this blog and elsewhere) made independently: that what really happened, is that I was forced to live out an episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. To my detractors, I say the following: try for one minute to imagine how pathological, narcissistic, far outside the human norm, etc. etc. you could make Seinfeld or George or Kramer or Elaine seem, if their misadventures from any given episode were described and analyzed with clinical detachment. (Or you were never a Seinfeld fan, then I guess this argument fails and we have nothing to say to each other.)
- I feel like some commenters are imposing their own after-the-fact knowledge (“c’mon, it was obviously a tip jar, he must be lying!”). Dana, who’s generally more grounded than I am, saw their whole setup and agreed it was profoundly non-obvious that the tiny, unmarked plastic cup was supposed to be for tips, particularly to someone who was extremely stressed and not concentrating. And when the employee later talked about tips, he didn’t indicate the cup so I didn’t make a connection.
- Most importantly: I wish to clarify that I don’t regard the police officers who handcuffed and interrogated me as having been “evil” in any sense. I even took a liking to the “good cop,” the one who implicitly acknowledged the situation’s surreal absurdity by the end (although maybe that’s the whole point of a “good cop”?). Having said that, I’m still rattled by the way the “bad cop” treated me as an unrepentant thief even to the end, even after the situation had been cleared up to everyone else’s satisfaction. And I stand by my view that there was no need to handcuff me in front of my wife and young children, when I’d shown not a single subatomic particle of resistance.
- Speaking of which, let me now relate the most interesting and unexpected part of the reaction to my story. Again and again, I found that fellow Americans, even nominally left-wing ones, sided with the police, said that I was crazy and guilty as charged and should’ve expected much worse, etc. And again and again, commenters from Australia and New Zealand sided with me 300%, said that handcuffing someone over such a trivial mishap was a ludicrous overreaction, which would be totally unheard of in their countries and which confirms all the bad things they’ve heard about the US. So maybe the rational conclusion is that I should be learning to enjoy vegemite in preparation for a move down under?