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A Man Scribbles In A Notepad — Terrorist Plot, Or Simple Math Problem?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

See something, say something - that is the wording that we hear all the time these days especially in big city subway systems and airports ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But last week, a woman following that instruction made an embarrassing mistake. Sitting on an American Airlines flight departing from Philadelphia, she saw a man scribbling on a notepad, and she told the crew. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports that the man was actually an Ivy League economist, and he was simply working on a complicated math equation.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: University of Pennsylvania professor Guido Menzio didn't want to talk on tape about this experience because this story is not about him, he says. Instead, it's a story about a process that failed. If only the lady next to him had asked him what he was doing, she would've found out that Menzio wasn't hatching a terrorist plot. But the Department of Homeland Security gives us some pretty unequivocal advice. Here's a commercial.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If we trust our instincts...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just like you should...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Because only you know...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: What's not supposed to be in your every day.

PERALTA: Michael O'Hanlon who studies national security policy at Brookings says we need to cut citizens, like that passenger, some slack.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: The average citizen should tend to trust their gut knowing that their gut could be wrong two-thirds of the time, and therefore what's important is procedures where law enforcement and other specialists know how to separate fact from fiction and do it in a timely way.

PERALTA: Unfortunately, he says, balancing all of this is hard work. The materials terrorists use are fairly discreet, and their actions often blend with what happens during a regular day.

O'HANLON: So we're just going to be living in a world where unfortunately some of these disruptions will happen sometime. On this occasion, after the woman on the plane reported Menzio to the crew, the plane returned to the gate causing an hour-and-a-half delay for 60 passengers.

In an email message, Menzio says ironically his work revolves around something called search theory. He studies how much information someone should gather before making a decision. He says the decision to turn the plane around was made before anyone even spoke to him. The episode, Menzio writes, reveals a need to redesign some aspects of air travel security. Eyder Peralta, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.