How Being a Lousy Journal Editor Nearly Ended Up Getting Me Sent to Guantanamo Bay

I am an editor at one of the top academic economic journals, the Journal of Political Economy. I handle between 150 and 200 manuscripts a year, deciding whether or not the journal should publish each of them. It takes a lot of time — something I’ve been short on lately. I’ve turned into a lousy journal editor as a consequence.

I used to be a good editor. And when I was good, I instituted a policy at the journal of having a report produced at the end of each month that detailed exactly how many overdue manuscripts each editor had. It turned out to be a very powerful social incentive for getting editors to do their jobs better. It is embarrassing when your colleagues see that you haven’t been doing your job.

A few days ago, with the end of the month approaching and my stack of JPE manuscripts threatening to reach to the ceiling, I decided I had no choice but to get up early and do some editorial work before catching an afternoon flight. I left the house at 4:30 AM. Much to the chagrin of my children who would wake up a few hours later, I grabbed the container that held what remained of the Entenmann’s cheese danish that we all like so much. Later at my office, as I polished off the last piece of danish, I noticed that someone had left a long, sharp knife in the tin that had contained the danish. We do that at my house so we don’t get a new knife dirty each time. So I threw the knife into the sack that had my JPE manuscripts to bring home.

Five hours later, I had only managed to finish half of my outstanding manuscripts — I would have to bring the remainder of them on the airplane with me if I wanted to finish them. I threw the sack of manuscripts into my suitcase and headed to the airport. Groggy from getting up so early, I cursed myself when I realized I had left my beloved iPod at home and would be without it for the trip.

I went through TSA screening without any problem. (Not like once in the past when I got into some trouble.) Standing on the tarmac, just as I was about to board my commuter plane, I remembered that I had my sack of manuscripts in my suitcase, which I had to leave on a luggage cart because the overhead bins are so small on these little planes. So I opened up the suitcase, grabbed, the sack of JPE manuscripts, and as I pulled it out, the long, sharp knife I had forgotten completely about went skittering across the ground. The knife hadn’t seemed so ominous in my office, but in this context, with a blade about six inches long, it looked pretty scary.

I looked around. Despite a lot of hustle and bustle, no one seemed to have noticed my knife. What next? I could just leave it there on the ground and scurry onto the plane. But when they found it,maybe they would do something crazy like stop the flight from leaving. I thought about kicking it under the luggage cart out of view. That didn’t seem like a great idea either. Finally, I nonchalantly ambled over to the knife, picked it up, stuffed it back into the suitcase, and got on the plane.

What could I have done with that knife? I probably could have hijacked the plane armed with that knife and a team of 15 commandos with assault weapons. Absent the commandos, I was thinking the knife might be useful for slitting my wrists over the despondency that accompanied not having my iPod.

I find it surprising that with all the resources that are poured into airport security these days, my knife went through the machines undetected. You might argue, well, it was only one case — of course they can’t catch everything. But, the thing is, this is the only time I’ve tried to bring a knife. They didn’t catch it. From the perspective of a Bayesian updater, that moves my beliefs about how likely they are to catch a random knife carrier quite a bit downwards.

I wonder what, if anything, would have happened had an airport employee been standing next to me when the knife fell out of my bag? At one level, I would hope the answer would be nothing. I’m obviously not a terrorist, just a sleep-deprived, bumbling academic. On the other hand, if you don’t intensively interrogate or punish people who successfully sneak through security with dangerous weapons, what is the point of the security in the first place?

I guess I’ll just have to smuggle another knife through next time, intentionally drop it on the tarmac this time when someone is looking, and then see what happens.


Willy

I have a feeling someone will probably try to get you in trouble for this post. It's crazy though, without honest accounts like these, there is no way we can make strides in bettering security.

Still, I'm sure you will cause at least a few people to overreact.

Jim Miles

Perhaps they did find the knife, saw that it was a kitchen knife with Danish crumbs on it, saw that it was in the luggage of a middle class American, and judged, like you did, that the best thing to do was just put it back in the suitcase without causing a fuss. Whether that's true or you were just lucky it is probably ill-advised to begin a little knife-smuggling project to test airport security.

Kent

I like Entenmann's cheese danishes.

colarusso

I had a similar experience last August while traveling abroad, a day before the liquid explosives scare. I had just accepted a one-year Fulbright exchange to Scotland. I was renting out my condo. So I had to find a place to store all my stuff. A locked attic seemed good for most things, but given extreme temperatures, this didn't quite do for all my belongings. I used to be an auxiliary police officer and consequently I had a can of pepper spray that I decided would best be stored at my parents'. I put this in my carry-on bag to drop off at my parents' before my flight. Needless to say, I forgot. So the morning of the liquid explosives scare I found myself listening to the news while unpacking my bags only to find a can of pepper spray that had just made it across the Atlantic through security and customs. Now with my exchange ending, and my return home approaching, I'm not sure what to do with it. Any thoughts?

Read more...

graham

I am currently also on an exchange year also, but from Scotland to California. My advice on the pepper spray would be to hand it in at a police station, tell the story and there will be no problem. You might want to make it clear that you did not know it was illegal to have pepper spray in Scotland.

dadakim

I also enjoy cheese danishes.

And, like you, I have found myself with a knife on the other end of a flight wondering how: (1) I didn't remember to take it out of my purse; and (2) the TSA folks that seem to be so preoccupied with my shoes being off and my contacts solution measuring less than 3 oz failed to notice it. In fact, it's happened to me more than once (I'm rather forgetful about the swiss army knife or leatherman I tend to carry*).

To TSA's credit, I've lost two swiss army knives to my frequent flying. AND - though I failed to notice a swiss army knife tucked away in a front pocket of my carry-on both before and after a flight (TSA folks at LAX also missed it before my flight), the TSA folks at Reagan National did notice and took it away. SO - maybe it's airport-dependent. I find that the security screenings at LAX (at least in the very busy United terminal) strike me as less secure than security screenings at Reagan National.

I've got a very small sample size, but I have a few hunches about why security is different at airports of similar size. (1) Maybe Reagan is a more important airport because of its vicinity to our national political leadership. Therefore, the screening process of security personnel will be more stringent to provide a more secure flying environment. (2) Perhaps the job market is better in LA, and so you find less-qualified applicants for the TSA jobs in LA than you do in DC.

*I'm not a dangerous knife-wielder. I typically carry a swiss army knife or a leatherman because of the useful scissors tool. That said, I definitely should not be allowed to bring a knife on board. Even though I know I'll never use it to harm anyone, after Sept. 11th, I don't want knives on planes. Now, as for my contact solution...

Read more...

egretman

You are like a hapless character in a Woody Allen movie blundering your way through our national security screen. You are Peter Sellers incarnate, or re-incarnate. You are the exception that keeps all the rest of us out of the hands of homeland security.

Thank you.

xanadu

So, what's on your iPod?

DBruno

Strange as it sounds...I was stopped by a TSA because they thought there was a lighter in my carry on as I sent it through the X-Ray machine.

I had quit smoking some months before and had forgotten it was in there, but I had a good idea where it would be in the bag.

I was pulled aside and got to have someone rifle through my luggage and they did not find it. Instead of passing it through again, or anything else, they gave the bag back and said have a nice flight.

Feeling a little awkward, I retrieved the lighter from where it was in the =bag and handed it to a TSA.

Needless to say, this experience was somewhat frightening.

I do feel the need to point out, however, that no one will ever be able to hijack a plane with a knife ever again. Pre-9/1, results of a hijacking were a quick detour to Cuba, grab some cigars, and return. The paradigm has been changed by the events of 9/11.

Hillary Walker

On a school trip last year to Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, one of the members of our group carried razor blades in her carry-on backpack on about 5 flights. These were outside of the United States (we started in Canada) but security has been increased ALOT in Canada and around the world since 9/11.

But the illusion of security is often just as important as the real thing.

Mu Cow

I made it from the airport in Stuttgart, Germany to Düsseldorf with a large pair of scissors in my bag. They found them in Düsseldorf though and I had to toss them out.

More recently, at the Shanghai airport, they made me take everything out of my bag because of my umbrella, but I've taken dozens of flights with my umbrella before with no problem.

nhanle

A purpose of having luggage check is to deter people from bringing weapons to the airport in the first place. Like in the ubiquitous tax audit example of game theory, where a significant possibility of getting audited and caught would make the tax payer much less likely to cheat, the presence of TSA already induces those who intend to bring weapons onto flights to at least devise complicated plots to do so.

economistswife

The same thing happened to me- although I didn't know that I had a knife in my luggage. When I moved to Chicago 4 years ago, my sister helped pack my bags. For some reason, she packed my carryon with my underwear, a rice cooker, plates, a 12" cast iron frying pan, and a 10" serrated knife. Guess what didn't make it through security? The frying pan. I had to throw it away because my flight was about to depart. It was classified as a "clublike object". I didn't find the knife until I unpacked a few days later. It was buried in my underwear and broken plates.

lermit

Inspiring!

.lermit

rseidman

You might consider a backup iPod. Maybe 2. One for home, one for your briefcase and one for your office.

I went with 2 just so there was always one with a full charge to grab. I leave it to you to calculate price/value for the extra iPods considering your work/travel schedule and how beloved your ipod is.

Mine became far more beloved once I crammed a couple hundred hours of video on it with enough room left for a couple thousand songs.

Deckard

I've lost count of the number of times i've carried bits through airports by accident. From what i can tell, the failure rate of the metal detectors is very high. I guess this accounts for the treatment you get when something is found. The "penalty" has to be high if the chance of getting caught is low to deter others. There is probably also a penalty for "flaunting" any story like this! Good luck Steven!

hombrelobo

"I wonder what, if anything, would have happened had an airport employee been standing next to me when the knife fell out of my bag?"

Now imagine you are dark skinned, your name is Mohammed, your passport is Iranian and ask the same question ...... academic or not .....

infidel

check the tsa website:

http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/prohibited/permitted-prohibited-items.shtm#4

knives are allowed in your checked baggage...doesn't specify length...i'd imagine it would be hard to get to it if it was in the belly of the plane...

kyrrigle

I had my carry-on bag flagged once. The offending "item" turned out to be a jumble of my: hand-held GPS, an electric toothbrush and a pack of AA batteries.

The TSA guy helpfully suggested I make sure they were separated in my bag next time.

It is a crap shoot however. I'm batting .500 (on 2 attempts) when forgetting to leave my keychain knife (1/2 blade) at home.

kaszeta

I've had a similar story, although mine happened at Heathrow in 2002 on the way back from a conference in Amsterdam.

At the time, the way my flights were structured and the international terminal at Heathrow was set up post-9/11, I had to have my bag screened three times between Boston and Amsterdam: Once in Boston, and twice in Heathrow. Same thing on the way back, once at Schipol, and twice at Heathrow.

So this bag of mine had been screened 6 times, four of them by hand (Heathrow). The very last time it was checked, boarding my plane back to Boston, the screener said, "I'm sorry, but we have to confiscate this," pointing in my bag. He was pointing in the little pockets where I keep my pens, and in the last little pocket was a Leatherman that I didn't even realize I had left in the bag. Feeling a little nervous, I said "sorry, I didn't know that was in there." The screener said, "well, we'll have to confisicate it. Sorry."

And then proceeded to remove not the leatherman, but the item in the pocket next to it: a telescoping antenna pointer that I use for presentations. He didn't notice the Leatherman.

So yes, accidental inclusion of contraband isn't uncommon. And having it make it through security isn't uncommon, either.

Read more...