There was a brief news item Sunday about police raiding a plane full of passengers in Detroit and taking three of them off for questioning. We’re now seeing just how clearly the incident points out that Americans have become paranoid and stupid in their irrational fear of terrorism.
That’s Shoshana Hebshi on the right. She’s a suburban housewife from Ohio. Her father is from Saudi Arabia and her mother is Jewish. She’s just a typical American with mixed ethnicity. But because she happened to be seated on a Frontier Airlines plane from Denver to Detroit Sunday with two men from India — who also didn’t know each other and didn’t talk to each other — passengers and crew were suspicious of them.
What were they suspicious of? There’s no reason to think they were suspicious of anything other than the fact that they looked a bit different from the rest of us. We don’t have first-hand accounts from the two Indian men, but Hebshi wrote extensively about her experience on Monday.
When you read a news story with a headline that just says, “No charges against 3 detained at Detroit airport,” it sounds cold and emotion-less. You might assume that police had good reason to be suspicious of the individuals who were “detained,” but there just wasn’t enough evidence to charge them with anything. In this case, however, it seems pretty clear that the suspicions were purely based on the simple fact that three people had different skin tones and different ethnicity than what some paranoid people consider acceptable.
In Hebshi’s detailed account of the experience, she shows the human side of the paranoia that some people experience in this country today. She was humiliated to have armed men storm a plane and take her away to be strip-searched and questioned for hours. How can a reasonable person say that there’s any reason to handcuff people and humiliate them with no actual reason? If someone can be carted off to a jail cell for no crime other than having different skin tone, what protection does he or she really have against false imprisonment?
Because of having seen the unreliability of witnesses in stressful situations, I’m always skeptical of explanations such as this one that appeared in a news story:
“According to witnesses, two men and a woman seated in the same row repeatedly went to the plane’s bathroom and spent a long amount of time there. Law enforcement sources told ABC News that the people were ‘making out’ in the bathroom, and that some sort of sexual activity may have been involved.”
An FBI spokeswoman in Detroit released a statement afterwards that tried to explain away the incident:
“Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously. The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not.”
It seems that the “inconsistency” in this case was skin color, not anything of substance. The “public” might want the FBI to arrest random dark-skinned people just for the heck of it, but we’re supposed to have constitutional protections against this sort of treatment. We want to be kept reasonably safe — as safe as we ever can be — but police and the public seem to have crossed a line into very unreasonable territory, treating many innocent people like dangerous criminals. This is wrong.
When Hebshi was released, an FBI agent apologized to her for the incident:
[The FBI agent] apologized for what had happened and thanked me for understanding and cooperating. He said, ‘It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.’ He said they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like. He said there had been 50 other similar incidents across the country that day.
That means there were probably many more innocent people across the country who were the victims of the same random ethnic suspicions that day. How many more are there going to be? How long is it going to be before we start growing up and judging people by the things they do — rather than by the tones of their skin?
Please read Hebshi’s full account of the incident. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were the one being dragged off that plane in handcuffs for absolutely no reason.