The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Ever Hear of Al-Gebra?

Apparently, for some Americans, it’s the language used by the latest terror group. On Saturday, American Airlines was notified by a passenger of the suspicious behavior of her seat mate. He was writing in some mysterious language and that, plus his swarthy complexion caused her concern. She passed a note to the flight crew, and the plane didn’t take off. Eventually, the crew asked the 40-year-old man with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent to explain himself, since he was now suspected of possible terrorism.

As it turns out, that man was a well-known economist Guido Menzio, who was working on a differential equation while on his way to give a lecture. From WaPo:

Those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or another foreign language, or even some special secret terrorist code. They were math.

Apparently, swarthy types who write on planes are suspicious in post-Trump America. The complaining woman thought Mr. Menzio was an Arab, but he is Italian. How difficult would it have been to say: “I can’t place your accent, where are you from originally?”

But no, she moved directly to terror. It is true that Mr. Menzio is a high ranking member of the Ma’ath party, although his seat mate would NEVER have understood the joke.

She saw a guy writing math notes. People should be able to scribble in notebooks in any language without their flights being delayed, let alone having to be taken off the plane and questioned.

It is easy to make fun of the woman who reported Mr. Menzio. She clearly doesn’t know algebra, and can’t tell an Italian from an Arab, so she may not be the brightest bulb, but she was listened to, and the airline acted on her fear.

Yes, we say “if you see something, say something”, but reacting as she did did not enhance anyone’s safety and didn’t foil any plots.

And really, is it so difficult to know its algebra when you see it?

No wonder the Chinese are eating us alive in math and engineering. When did seeing an equation get to be so rare that your seat mate on a flight to Syracuse believes it to be a form of “strange script” and conclude that the person who wrote it was a terrorist?

The enemy isn’t a possible terrorist on a flight to Syracuse, it is our fear of foreigners.

The enemy is our inability to know math when we see it.

Sadly, every day we continue to prove Pogo’s adage: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.



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