Flying While Half-Arab (and Half-Jewish): This One Is Shocking

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What's behind the brief news accounts you saw, about false-alarm security scares on 9/11/2011

airport security-body.jpg

Flickr/gtarded

You may have seen the matter-of-fact reports yesterday about extra security sensitivity on the airlines, because of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. For instance, this is the entirety of a NYT description of one false-alarm scare:

Nearly the same circumstance [as in another case] -- multiple passengers holed up in the bathroom -- led to F-16s shadowing Frontier Airlines Flight 623 from Denver as it neared Detroit. No danger was found and no charges were filed, said Scott Wintner, a Detroit Metropolitan Airport spokesman.

And here is a further AP report, with the headline "No charges against 3 detained at Detroit airport."

Shoshana_AC94C77812320.jpgNow, read this account from one of those three who escaped with the apparent good fortune of not being charged. Her name is Shoshana Hebshi, and she is an American citizen with a Saudi father and a Jewish mother. She is married and is herself a mother, and she lives in the Midwest. That's her picture, at right, from a column she did about her love of bicycles, two years ago while a graduate student in journalism at Iowa State.

To skip ahead to the punch line, on this flight she was sitting by chance in a row with two Indian-looking passengers, neither of whom knew the other or knew her. But collectively they aroused the suspicion of other passengers or crew, and when the plane landed, heavily armed troops stormed aboard, handcuffed the three of them, and took them off for extensive questioning. After which they were eventually released with "no charges filed." Which is fair enough, considering that like everyone else on the plane they were simply trying to travel from Denver to Detroit and had done absolutely nothing wrong except to have "suspicious" looks.

A sample of her account of what happened after the plane landed and was directed away from the normal gate area:

Then what looked like the bomb squad pulled up. Two police vans and a police communication center bus parked off the road. I started to get nervous and rethink my decision to fly on 9/11.
   [A Tweet she sent out: Cops in uniform and plainclothes in a huddle in rear of plane.]

We had been waiting on the plane for a half hour. I had to pee. I wanted to get home and see my family. And I wanted someone to tell us what was going on. In the distance, a van with stairs came closer. I sighed with relief, thinking we were going to get off the plane and get shuttled back to the terminal. I would still be able to make it home for dinner. Others on the plane also seemed happy to see those stairs coming our way.

   [Another Tweet: I see stairs coming our way...yay!]
Before I knew it, about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen-bigger than what the guards carry at French train stations.
   [My last tweet:
   Majorly armed cops coming aboard]

Someone shouted for us to place our hands on the seats in front of us, heads down. The cops ran down the aisle, stopped at my row and yelled at the three of us to get up. "Can I bring my phone?" I asked, of course. What a cliffhanger for my Twitter followers! No, one of the cops said, grabbing my arm a little harder than I would have liked. He slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.

The cops brought us to a parked squad car next to the plane, had us spread  our legs and arms. Mine asked me if I was wearing any explosives. "No," I said, holding my tongue to not let out a snarky response. I wasn't sure what I could and could not say, and all that came out was "What's going on?"...

And, much later, after the authorities begin to establish that she is not a threat:

Again, I asked what was going on, and the [policeman] said judging from their line of questioning that I could probably guess, but that someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity. What is the likelihood that two Indian men who didn't know each other and a dark-skinned woman of Arab/Jewish heritage would be on the same flight from Denver to Detroit? Was that suspicion enough? Even considering that we didn't say a word to each other until it became clear there were cops following our plane? Perhaps it was two Indian man going to the bathroom in succession?

Her account goes on, at quite some length. I think if you start reading you will continue. I should say that I cannot independently vouch for her version of events -- and it is so specific and detailed that I'm sure it will be challenged by the airline or police if it's inaccurate. But the worst thing about it is that it is so easy to believe. Compared with this, the Vance Gilbert "flying while black" case is nothing.

The AP story quotes the official response thus:

FBI Detroit spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said ultimately authorities determined there was no real threat.

"Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously," Berchtold said. "The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not."

"Caution," yes. But read this story and see if "caution" or "restraint" is the term that comes to your mind.

In a free and diverse society "the public would rather" that officials recognize the balance and tradeoff between "complete" security, on the one hand, and on the other the liberties and privacies that distinguish open societies from police states. In the Gilbert case, you can argue that once the authorities were called in, they kept their cool and reached a sensible "let's calm things down" decision. That is not how this latest case looks to me.

Assuming that Ms. Hebshi's account is correct, this is an important instance for recognizing what security-state, permanent-fear thinking has done to us. Which is a necessary part of the tenth-anniversary reflections.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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