Trouble on board
May 13, 2003
Some questions beg for punch-line answers. I was recently asked to share with an audience how a Middle Eastern looking man of the swarthy persuasion negotiates his way in a security conscious America. Loath as I was to sound glib, I could not resist the inevitable answer: carefully. The response got a laugh but at the same time it committed me to the testimonial style.
For instance, I went on, people in my racial profile know better than to blithely venture into airports. At such places I engage in what sociologists call “impression management.” I dress up, wear my horn rimmed glasses, carry a leather bound book and smile my most genial smile. The follow up question did not have a punch-line answer: “Does that work?”
Now, I had to tell them my story.
On March 4th of last year I was on my way to deliver lectures at Williams College and the University of New Hampshire at Durham. I gave myself a wide berth at Chicago’s O’Hare airport for lengthy searches and interrogations but my progress to the departure gate and the boarding were uneventful.
The doors of the plane closed and a few passengers changed their seats for comfort. I too changed my seat as the aircraft started to taxi, happily bouncing and chirping. The pleasant whirr of the plane’s air conditioning systems and the metronomic click of its tires crossing concrete lines of the runway bode well for my post-9/11 maiden voyage.
I was dozing when the pilot’s voice came on announcing that due to technical glitches we were returning to the gate. The explanation was revised as we arrived at the gate: actually, the problem was one of security. There was an air of nervous anticipation on board.
Moments later four burly men, thick with bulletproof vests, were asking me to take all of my belongings and accompany them off the airplane. A gauntlet of gaping passengers, pale with fear and fidgeting with anxiety awaited me. Some necks craned out for a better view of the offender.
At occasions like this the unwritten laws against staring are suspended. As I passed through the corridor that leads to the gate I asked one of my honor guards why I was being escorted off the plane.
--“United [Airlines] is going to refuse you service.”
--“Because there was trouble on board, Sir. And you initiated it.”
Of course, I had not spoken to a single soul let alone initiate trouble.
Back at the gate my carry-on bags were thoroughly searched and my identity was called in. Everything checked out. Again I asked for clarifications and the United representative explained that I was in the wrong seat in violation of FAA rules. Also, while trying to retrieve something from my carry-on I had touched the flight attendant’s trunk.
Was I to assume that my Middle Eastern looks had nothing to do with the crew’s overreaction? One of the black clad security guards answered my question with a non sequitur: “You know what? Since September 11th all of our lives have changed.” I was not looking for an apology -- which I was not to receive at any rate. I was prepared to accept the non sequitur as explanation and get on with my travel plans.
But returning to the plane was not in the cards. I was told that the pilot was refusing to allow me back on board. I had not been a confrontational or abusive passenger. And I surely was not a security risk, as the United representative personally booked me on the next American flight to my destination.
As the aircraft pushed off from the gate I was thinking of my audience in Williamstown and the long wait for the next plane. But foremost in my mind was the thought that I would never be vindicated in the eyes of the people on that plane.
My exclusion did not enhance the safety of the passengers of United flight 386, nor did it diminish the security of those on board the American flight 1496 that took me to Albany four hours later. Getting back on board would have been the least of my rights as a citizen who has been singled out for scrutiny and cleared of all suspicions.
More importantly, it would have communicated to my fellow passengers that sometimes Middle-Eastern-looking men are just Middle-Eastern-looking men. Compared to expelling a peaceful passenger who was proven innocent and perpetuating a stereotype, the cost of allowing me back on the board would have been minimal to the flight crew. They would have had to accept the implication that they had initiated a false alarm.
Few Americans have not heard the arguments about how difficult times call for tough, agonizing choices between liberties and collective security. But I would have understood agonizing choices.
In my case, I would have lived with the suspension of the presumption of innocence and public humiliation in exchange for collective security or the perception of it. But on that day I saw precious little agonizing by those who determined my fate. The maxims of that day were clear: “better safe than sorry” for “us” and “tough luck” for “them.”
My audience waited in vain for a dénouement, a morale which my story lacked.
Afterwards, a man presented me with a Martin Luther King American flag that was forged as a lapel pin. The slain Civil Rights leader believed that red, white and blue were too restrictive. He believed that stars and stripes in black and white more fully symbolized the diversity of America. I wear that flag often but never to airports.
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