A Practical Question From Someone Who Must Fly While Brown

I won't string this out indefinitely, but: a lot of mail I've received in the past few days (about the Frontier Airlines fiasco) has been from people with names like Krishna, Sanjay, Vijay, Nikhil, Pradeep, etc. Reminder: the "suspicious" passengers who were hustled off a plane in handcuffs for police questioning have not been named but have been described as "two Indian males." A person who lives in Florida and has a name like those listed above writes to ask:

It is great to see the sense of outrage that has been raised by your commenters. As a practical matter, I would like to know what can i do when faced with such a situation?

I am Indian (South Asian) who is obviously brown and travel quite a bit for work. So my question is if such a thing happens to me what are the steps i can take to reclaim my dignity and not be humiliated? Is there a hotline i can call right away? Any other steps i can take in the crucial couple of minutes before being summarily hauled out of flight? Maybe I can let my wife know before hand that if she does not hear from me once i land what to do and contact the hotline right away. If you can give me and your other readers who will face a similar situation on practical steps that would be most helpful.

Reasonable question. Let me anticipate an answer and draw a lesson from it. One response might be: Yes, sure, there's a hotline! It's the same one that Latinos have used when having trouble with the cops in the Southwest, or that American blacks have relied on over the years. I am not meaning to suggest that this is the first instance of racially based law-enforcement overreaction in America. I am suggesting that the long-standing problem is worsened and further dramatized as permanent-fear thinking extends it to even more groups. A few more messages after the jump.

From a reader who makes the "security theater" point:

>>The incident involving the woman and two men says a lot about the excessiveness of our response to security concerns, but I think less has been said about what it says about the incompetence and inadequacy of that response.

Let us imagine a contrafactual hypothetical: that the woman and two men were, in fact, terrorists. What threat would they pose, since they'd all gone through intrusive searches before boarding the plane, and they were limited to a presumably safe few ounces of chemicals in their carry-ons. Are we saying that these pre-boarding searches don't protect us from danger? And since the plane had already landed, are we to assume the plot failed? Was there any evidence of anything? Burnt shoe? Tampered panels in the bathroom? What?

And what if they weren't the only terrorists? On 9/11 there were multiple simultaneous teams in operation. Supposing the security people in this incident had caught one - wouldn't it be important to immediately determine if it was a false alarm, and raise a hue-and-cry if it was NOT? It would seem that, if they were actually suspected of being dangerous, that letting them cool their heels for hours was compounding the danger.

Are we to believe that, after 10 years of our security state, we still don't have the means or procedures to assess the threat within minutes, not hours? What kind of a reaction is that? What were the people in Detroit waiting for, another plane to blow up somewhere else in the country?

What angers me about the extent of our "security theater" is just how unserious it is. This was a horrific way to treat innocent fliers. It was also a horrific way to deal with potential terrorists, because it didn't do anything to prevent an attack.

This member of the public might be willing to talk about a trade-off between personal liberty and security, but I'm completely unwilling to accept this trade-off, where personal liberty is denied in exchange for bureaucratic convenience and an incompetent pretense of security.<<

Similarly on the incompetence front:

>>1) Everything I have ever read about Jewish law on inheritance says the same thing: if you have a Jewish mother, that makes you Jewish. It seems to me that under Jewish law your father's ethnicity shouldn't matter, so how come so many people have gone out of their way to point out Shoshana Hebshi has a Saudi father? Surely under Jewish law the headline should read: Sick Indian man taken off plane in handcuffs  for using bathroom; Jewish housewife from Toledo taken away for sitting next to him.

2) The sheer incompetence of this mess leaps out at me. Four decades after E. F. Codd Cobb did his pioneering work on computer database management, a decade after 9/11 alerted us all to the need for law enforcement to get better information, nobody got the names of the passengers in row 12. Either law enforcement didn't think to ask for the names, or the airline couldn't furnish them. Either would seem a damning indictment of the officials who should have made at least minimal progress on providing real time access to information after 2001. For someone who had the names, it wouldn't take the FBI uber-hacker played by Kirsten Vangsness on Criminal Minds; a google search would have sufficed to determine the identity of Ms. Habshi, and I'd like to bet that a few minutes with a reverse phone directory would have reassured the authorities about her seatmates. It reminds me of the pilot saying: superior pilots use their superior judgment to avoid situations where they might have to use their superior reflexes.<<

On who is responsible for the over-reaction in this case:

>>Several of your correspondents suggest that the unknown flier who tipped off the authorities to the presence of three 'suspicious' passengers should be held accountable. I think this impulse misses the point. We will never eliminate unfounded tips from civilians, whether motivated by outright malice or merely by ignorance and fear. That's why we need our security agencies to perform triage on the information they receive: to examine the weight of the evidence before charging in and subjecting three innocent people to hours of detention and harrassment.

In New York City, where I live, there are signs in the subways that say, "If you see something, say something." The implication of that sign is, "Give us as much data as possible, and we'll sort out whether it's actionable or not." That may be the appropriate stance for the authorities to take. But in taking it, they assume responsibility for how they use the information they're given.<<


>>I also would like to comment that what you call "security theater" has another name:  Stalinism. These anonymous accusations of "suspicious activity" are exactly what made the Soviet Union a living hell for intellectuals, artists, Jews, or anyone who had a paranoid neighbor.<<

And one more:

>>Unfortunately, this is just another example to place the "terrorists are winning" bin.  We continue to abandon the principles which we claim differentiate us from "them".  We are becoming ever more xenophobic and we are abandoning the common decency which I used to believe was one of the values that differentiated our society from so many others around the world.

 The hype and fear mongering of the media based upon the insubstantial "intelligence" report that came out of Pakistan last week definitely communicated to the terrorists that they can continue to tie our society in knots with minimal effort and cost while we persist in squandering our resources, not to mention the lives of our military, on a strategy that has become little more than political theatre.

This is definitely not another Vietnam, Vietnam had an end.  I don't see one for this war.<<