Just a Little More on Flying While Non-White

More

This episode -- in which three absolutely innocent people, two of them Indian men and one a Saudi/Jewish American woman, were taken off a plane, in handcuffs, by heavily armed security forces because their looks had made someone suspicious -- has really gotten to me. No doubt for an unworthily personalized reason: I can imagine so many people I know, trust, and love being considered "suspicious" in this way. Each of my sons has started a tech business, and in each case his business partner is a very close friend from early years who would fit the "suspicious" profile.

I also know how I would feel if armed Chinese troops had come into an airplane while I was taking a trip in China, and then handcuffed me and other non-Chinese-looking passengers who happened to be sitting together, and hustled us out because someone thought we looked suspicious.

But the broader point really is the cliche: this is what it looks like when "the terrorists win" and we lose the long-term struggle to protect a free society.

A few more from the mailbag, and then some questionsz. First, from a reader in Chicago:

>>The responses to this incident are certainly on point, but while waxing philosophical about what it means for 'society' I think people are missing a simpler, narrower point about the whole sad situation:

The person or persons who provided the initial 'tip' that led to this disgraceful fiasco will suffer NO consequences. He/she/they may even go on believing that they did the Right Thing. It's unlikely any of the airline, airport, or law-enforcement officials---who should have known better---will suffer any consequences either. Three innocent people were inconvenienced and humiliated, and no one will pay the price.

Sometimes there are reasonable observations of potential bad behavior that turn out to be honest mistakes; false positives happen. However, nothing about this situation has that feel. Unless and until we can find a way to start extracting a penalty on those who make unfounded accusations that turn out to be false, especially when they are so egregiously out of line, there's little chance that we can start pushing our national-security state back towards a healthier balance.<<

From a reader who I think is a lawyer:

>>"The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not." [The FBI spokesperson's no-harm, no-foul 'explanation' for the event.]
 
I do not recall being consulted.  This invocation of the public will is a perfect example of what Frankfurt's essay from a while back characterized as bullshit; speaking with a complete disregard for the truth of one's statement.  (Even the liar has to know what is true in order to say the opposite).
 
Note also the complete absence of an argument that the actions of law enforcement were reasonable - if "slight inconsistencies" is the best defence you can make, you don't have even have the legal basis for a Terry stop [explained in previous post] , (which requires at least a reasonable suspicion), let alone the probable cause required for a full arrest. 
 
However, as the public will has been "established" as requiring this type of reaction, then it doesn't matter if the detention is unlawful; on 9/11 of any given year the racism of a fellow passenger is sufficient to establish probable cause.  That must be one of the later amendments, because I don't remember that part of the 4th.

I think there is sometimes a tendency to see the problem being the fearful passenger/ crewmember who made the initial report, while excusing law enforcement as being obliged to follow up on even the most deranged accusations. But law enforcement is obligated to exercise its authority only where there is a reasonable basis for doing so, which also requires them to evaluate the reasonableness of any accusations. [JF note: As, again, was the only good part of the lamentable Vance Gilbert case -- the common sense of the police officer once he finally came on the scene.]
 
"this is an important instance for recognizing what security-state, permanent-fear thinking has done to us. ..."
 
Indeed.  I know that arguments about the rule of law have been made a thousand times, by people more eloquent and less shrill than myself, but a situation like this should really enrage us all. The freedom tower is under construction, but this memorial to 9/11--the creation of a culture in which our fear is nurtured and sanctified to such an extent that racist anxiety supercedes our most fundamental rights--has already been built.
 
As a sidenote, I think that there is often a tendency to refrain from calling things racist unless the proof is overwhelming; I remember from the story about Vance Gilbert that quite a few people argued that we couldn't know if it was because of race, implicitly arguing that those who allege racism in a situation like this bear the burden of proof.  But I don't think that is appropriate, in this case or the Gilbert case.  Where race seems likely to be the motive, such as when the only suspicious characteristic of an individual is the color of their skin we should assume that race played a role.<<

Now, some questions, beginning with a practical one from a reader in North Carolina:

>>Maybe it's just my rage at the story you posted--but I'm left wondering why someone in Ms. Hebshi's position is not left with some legal recourse.  At a minimum, shouldn't the suspicious passenger (or flight attendant) have some liability?

And if there's no legal liability, shouldn't the sixth amendment (at least) give some cover for publicly releasing the names of the complainants, so there can at least be some shaming of those who cause scenes like this?<<

In the same vein, from a friend in DC who is a very experienced observer of U.S. politics and public life:

>>Are there sufficient grounds here, given the facts in hand, to warrant a false arrest claim against the government? Do you think that pressure for an public apology from the government would do some good? Should TSA/FBI  issue some updated rules on how to deal with supposed terrorists when nothing has happened?<<

And finally for this installment, a question from a reader in Louisiana:

>>I repeat my question from Sunday [about the 9/11 commemorations]: Are we "memorializing the terrorists" with our actions?<<

My answer to the legal-recourse questions is, I don't know but will try to find out. And John Pistole and Janet Napolitano, a public word from you would help, on whether (as the FBI spokesman claimed) this episode reflects the security/liberty balance we all want to see struck. Wouldn't hurt to hear from Frontier Airlines, too.

My answer to the final question, from Louisiana, is, Yes.

More on this theme soon; dispatches and testimonials keep arriving, but it's very late where I am (Sydney) and am closing up for the night.

Presented by

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.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In