Flying While Brown

by brendan on 01/2/2009

A Muslim family was removed today at Reagan Airport from an AirTran flight bound for Orlando. Apparently they were overheard discussing where the safest place in a plane would be to sit and this made some of the other passengers uncomfortable. Those other passengers contacted the Air Marshalls who then contacted the Airport Police. Shortly after that the FBI boarded the plane to remove the family and investigate. Another Muslim passenger, who was a family friend that just happened to be on the same flight, was also removed because he was seen talking to the family.

After investigation, the FBI completely cleared the family of any wrongdoing. According to one of the family members, the FBI was quite courteous and professional about the ordeal – even going so far as calling the airline to plead for the family’s re-booking.

The airline, however wouldn’t budge. AirTran would not rebook the family on another flight or reimburse them for the added cost of the flights they had to book through a different carrier. An AirTran spokesperson defended the company’s reaction and said that since the FBI had cleared them, the family would be welcome to fly AirTran in the future.

Washington Post

It would be very easy to read these articles and point the finger at AirTran for clumsily handling the incident. And certainly, their stance to not allow the family to rebook was a disappointing one. But I’m personally more disappointed with the other passengers on the plane. Specifically, the ones that lodged the original complaints with the Air Marshalls. One of the men in the family had heard it was safest to sit by the wing, but his sister-in-law said she had heard it was safer to sit in the back of the plane. That’s it. No mention of bomb, or gun, or down with America, or praise Allah. And it was all spoken in perfect non-accented English, presumably, since the the family members were American – born in Detroit. I’ve had that conversation on a plane before, more than once, and nobody batted an eye because I’m a clean cut looking white guy. The family removed from this flight were removed because they were brown, the men had beards, and the women had headscarves. Plain and simple.

So are the prejudiced passengers entitled to their misguided views? Sure they are. They have as much right to believe Muslim=terrorist as I believe they=stupid. But we’re not just talking about free speech or free thought. We’re talking about civil rights. This poor family had their day very rudely and embarrasingly disrupted, and were forced to pay extra to get to their destination. And worst of all, there were children involved. The adults in the family were certainly able to understand what was happening, and were probably a little too familiar with the stares and whispers they were getting. But how do those adults explain this incident to the children? Some of the other nice passengers think Mommy and Daddy are evil killers? No apologies will ever undo the impression this incident will have on those children.

Airport security is obviously a very complicated issue, one that requires much more consideration than I will give it in this short post. But I for one am certainly less comfortable knowing that other passengers could get me yanked from a flight because they don’t care to understand my beliefs or something else about me. I’m also less confident that our airport security measures, increasingly draconian as they may be, will ever be enough for the type of passenger that would be uncomfortable next to a Mulsim in any situation. Should that even matter, what we as passengers think? I don’t think so, since I’m not qualified to determine what is and isn’t safe for air travel and you probably aren’t qualified to do so either. But more and more it seems that the security measures in place are just as much to make us feel safe, as they are to make us actually be safe. Maybe even more so.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time to start taking the train…

There are 3 comments in this article:

  1. 01/3/2009Courtney says:

    Well, I do know that if I ever fly again, it won’t be on AirTran. This sounds like an episode of Law and Order waiting to happen.

  2. 01/7/2009Your Mom's Hot Chili says:

    No, after that 10-hour trip to St. Louis, I’m never taking the train again.

    I don’t see what you’re all bent out of shape about. I mean, obviously, the next terrorist attack on an airplane will be carried out by a stereotypical Muslim-looking person with a thick accent. A potential terrorist would never think to try to blend in and make an attempt to look like an average, normal American to attack a plane, would they?

  3. 01/7/2009brendan says:

    You’re absolutely right; and it would be stupid to assume that any halfway smart attacker wouldn’t attempt to conceal their attack. I just don’t think this has anything to do with terrorism, as much as it did with racism.

    The reason I don’t get stopped for that conversation isn’t just that I’m white, but because that conversation is normal and harmless. If it was really about the conversation, then we’d see these arrests all the time, across a broad spectrum. So it’s either a made up reason to pull a harmless muslim off a plane, or it’s real policy being enforced in a completely racist way. Neither makes me any safer on a plane. Just like the liquids rule. And that one’s not racist, it’s just dumb.

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