More on Flying While Half-Arab

In response to the previous item about the three "suspicious" non-white people who were handcuffed and hustled off a plane by heavily armed security forces, because their appearance aroused "suspicions" among still-unnamed crew members or other passengers on the plane, some responses.

1. From my friend David Golson, who is black:

Unless you go thru something like this you do not understand....

I have never been detained on a airplane, but I have been in many situations like this and after going over all the details the only thing you can think is that is has to have been my color.

2. From Ta-Nehisi Coates, who for the record is also black, a disspiriting but true assessment, on his site. The "security ratchet," which makes it hard for any politician ever to recommend any reduction in security-theater, applies with extra force to Democrats:

If Obama were to change TSA regulations today, and there were a terrorist attack, he would be finished, as would many Democrats. He would not be finished simply because of Republican fear-mongering. He would be finished because a large number of actual people,  actual members of the electorate, are more afraid of the tangible--if unlikely--threat of dying in terrorist attack, than the intangible, but significantly more likely. threat of "permanent-fear thinking."

Someday, inevitably, there will be another terrorist-style attack involving air travel. We know that just as we know that someday there will be another schoolyard mass shooting, and that in the typical American day around 50 people will be murdered and around twice that many will be killed in car crashes, many by drunks. (And just as we know that there will not be "another 9/11," because hijackers will never again be allowed to fly a plane into a skyscraper. If the passengers don't stop them, the Air Force will.) We know of those certainties but understand that the means of preventing them are either impractical --don't let anyone drive -- or politically or socially unacceptable (see: the NRA). Somehow we treat anything scare-labeled as "terrorism," and above all anything involving airplanes, as a separate category. So even those politicians who might want to challenge security-state thinking don't dare take the risk. All the more so with Democrats, who can't afford to seem in any way "weak."

3. From a reader in the tech industry:

Proof (as if it were needed) that racism is alive and well. I doubt it was malicious racism. I suspect this was a double trigger:

  • A form of 'instinctive' racism causes someone to be suspicious of the behavior of someone with different colored skin, and to bring that to others' attention. Not rationalized racism, just gut-reaction racism. This is then combined with...
  • A cause-without-compromise mentality (in this case National Security) that fails to balance security with other needs (liberty, dignity, moral leadership)

These both feel to me like big societal flaws that on this occasion have combined to produce a very public outcome, but also flaws that for the most part go about their ways in American life doing constant, small, near invisible damage. In the case of #1, furthering racial inequalities, in the case of #2 slowly eroding freedom and economic prosperity.

So to anyone who might say, "this is just an unfortunate combination of two unlikely events - move on..", I would say, "no, this is a visible reminder of two subtle, toxic problems, and they each need to be fixed"

4. From a reader in the legal industry*:

As a criminal lawyer, I find it interesting that police claims that someone wasn't arrested are reported without question.  I think that removing a person -- handcuffed -- from an airplane, holding her in a police facility, and interrogating and searching her, especially strip searching her, is an arrest.

In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court held that police who have a specific and articulable basis for believing that a person has committed a crime may stop, detain, and even frisk that person.  The longer the stop, the greater the scope of any movement of the suspect, and the intrusiveness of any search may make the police conduct unlawful.

Of course, we've been appointing right wing politicians to our courts for decades, but I think it's at least lazy to allow police to call what happened here something other than an arrest without suggesting that there is another view.

5. From another reader in the world of the law:

>>Ms. Hebshi's account certainly has the ring of truth to it.  This incident represent a gross over-reaction of law enforcement/security forces, not to mention an incredibly wasteful use of government personnel.

A report of "suspicious activity" on the plane could be anything from someone trying to set a match to his shoe bomb to an overly nervous flyer reacting badly to someone who looks "foreign".  Both airline personnel, who presumably field these reports in the first instance, and Federal security personnel need to learn to be more discriminating in how and when they respond.

What's particularly absurd about the treatment Ms. Hebshi and the two men received is that all of this--the handcuffs, the cell, the strip search--took place after the plane had landed without incident.  Perhaps at that point, law enforcement personnel might have had reason to believe that this was a false alarm.

The fact is that folks in this country are, by and large, still unused to the reality of physical threat from foreign sources.  We have a 200 plus year history of being essentially impregnable to foreign invasion or attack, due to the two oceans separating us from most of the rest of the world.  That era is now past, organized randomly targeted violence--terrorism--is now a fact we have to live with.  Americans have not, to date, responded well to the psychological challenges posed by this loss of security.<<

6. And one more to round things off:

>>Why that eminent observer, James Durante,* popped into my head with his "...what a revoltin' development this is", is not exactly clear to me, especially since his remark conjures levity.  I literally gasped when reading this account.  Amidst all the bloviating on the 11th about the resilience of our citizenry comes this shock of what the last ten years has actually wrought.  It is profoundly depressing. [*As various readers have pointed out, this was actually a catchprhase of William Bendix, on The Life of Riley.] <<

* That reader sends a cite to a related "Burton" case, with this interpretation:

>>The appellate court didn't reach the issue because it concluded there was cause to arrest, but the lower court's ruling shows that police actions once thought to be unlawful are now more likely to be permitted.  Of course, in the airplane case, there are no facts mentioned by the government that would justify an arrest.  I suspect the incident began with a nervous (or racist) passenger complaining about "suspicious activity."  In the America we're taught about in law schools, police need to have specific facts to justify Terry stops.  I guess the constitution ends at the tarmac.... [Also] See Dunaway v. New York (1979) 442 U.S. 200, 215 [handcuffs considered "trappings of a technical formal arrest"]; United States v. Newton (2d Cir. 2004) 369 F.3d 659, 676 [handcuffing is hallmark of formal arrest]<<

I won't presume to open up a legal debate here, just adding it for the record.