The One-Way Ticket Myth And What It Reveals Of The Way We Talk About Terrorism

Back in the early days of the reporting on the Christmas Crotchfire attack, I heard a lot of pundits glibly intone that fingering Umar Abdulmutallab as a terror suspect should have been easy, because he had a Muslim-sounding name, a one-way ticket and was not carrying any luggage. At the time, I thought, "You make it sound so simple! But airline travelers interface with authorities at several different disconnected points. It's likely that there's no one person assigned to make connections between names, travel status and luggage habits."

Turns out, I was needlessly complicating the matter as well, because, as TPM's Justin Elliot points out, that whole part about Abdulmutallab traveling on a one-way ticket was just wrong:

But published reports on Dec. 28 cited the conclusion of the Nigerian government that Abdulmutallab had a round-trip ticket to Detroit. It had been purchased in Ghana on Dec. 16 for $2,831, according to the AP, citing Civil Aviation Authority director Harold Demuren. His return date was found by the Nigerians to be Jan. 8. (A Dutch government report described by the International Herald Tribune on Dec. 31 also said Abdulmutallab had a round-trip ticket, but it's not clear whether the Dutch were simply relying on the Nigerians' conclusion.) A full account of Demuren's comments can be found in the Nigerian newspaper The Nation here.

Elliot rightly points out that this is "a remarkable example of how bad information can travel far and wide" between media outlets which endlessly report this fallacy. But I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that this is a remarkable example of how people just say straight-up stupid things about counter-terrorism policy.

To suggest that connecting name-to-luggage-to-one-way-ticket is a slam dunk terrorist identification system is just myopic and weird. Clearly, that system can easily be foiled by a forged name or checked bag. Why, going forward, wouldn't would-be terrorists simply buy round-trip tickets? It's not like they care about getting their money's worth out of the airline industry.

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