Flying While Half-Arab (and Half-Jewish): The Lawsuit

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A little more than a year ago I mentioned the case of Shoshana Hebshi, a young American woman who lives in Ohio, is married, and has twin sons. Hebshi was born in California to a Jewish mother and a father originally from Saudi Arabia.

On September 11, 2011, she took a Frontier Airlines flight from San Francisco through Denver to Detroit. You can read her whole account of what happened once she got to Detroit, but this is the summary: After the plane landed, it parked for a while without going to the normal gate. Then heavily armed security forces came onto the plane and came to the row where Hebshi was sitting. They handcuffed her and the other two people in that row. The three passengers were marched off, searched, detained,  and interrogated as possible terror threats. On what grounds? The two men sitting next to Hebshi, whom she didn't know and who didn't know each other, were dark-skinned South Asians, and another passenger or a member of the crew became suspicious of them. As Hebshi said in her initial post:

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?

The FBI's attitude at the time was, Better safe than sorry. According to the AP:

Detroit [FBI] 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.

Today the ACLU filed a complaint against Frontier Airlines, the local airport authorities, and various FBI, TSA, CBP, and other federal agents for abusing Hebshi's rights. You can read the ACLU's news release here, and the formal complaint in PDF here. Samples from the complaint:

 2. An American citizen born in California, Ms. Hebshi was arrested and detained because of her ethnicity and her seat assignment: she has an Arab last name and was seated next to two men of South Asian origin, who each allegedly used the lavatory for ten to twenty minutes during the flight.  Ms. Hebshi did not know these men, nor did she speak with them or leave her seat at any time before landing in Detroit.
3. Although Frontier Airlines never suggested that Ms. Hebshi had engaged in any suspicious behavior, Frontier Airlines staff provided her name to federal and state authorities when reporting the allegedly suspicious conduct of the men seated next to her on the plane.... 

5. During her several hours in detention, Ms. Hebshi was subjected to an invasive and humiliating strip search, which required her to strip naked, bend over, and cough.

6. Ms. Hebshi, by her attorneys, now challenges the discriminatory conduct of Frontier Airlines, which identified her as a "suspicious" passenger based on her ethnicity, race or national origin, resulting in her arrest and detention.
As with the glider pilot held incommunicado last year as a possible terrorist threat, this is offered as part of the ongoing chronicles of the security state.
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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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