October 15, 2009 2:47PM

Good Athelete, Not a Good Terrorist Hunter

The leading theory about this video is that John Elway would say anything for a buck. That’s fine for him to do, of course. But the producers of the video below inadvertently illustrate the difficulty of generating suspicion about terrorists (or any other thing) artificially.

The video goes through eight signs of terrorism, on which they say “experts agree.” They are signs of terrorism, in a sense, but they are signs of lots of other things too. If Coloradans contacted authorities as instructed in the video, they would inundate law enforcement with false reports, possibly obscuring truly suspicious information. I wrote about properly generated suspicion and my testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee touching on these issues a couple of years ago.

Asking amateurs for tips about suspicious behavior will have many wasteful and harmful results, like racial and ethnic discrimination, angry neighbors turning each other in, and lots and lots of folks just plain getting it wrong. But people with expertise—even in very limited domains—can discover suspicious circumstances, almost automatically, when they find things “hinky.”

Given the rarity of terrorists and terrorism planning in this country, hunting terrorists using the list of “signs” in this video would cause people to be wrong about 100% of the time. Americans have much of the knowledge and all the incentive they need to report truly suspicious activity without videos encouraging them to see terrorism in every shadow.