I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fear-mongering leads to anti-Arab hysteria on airplanes

(updated below)

All of the fear-mongering and political exploitation of terrorism from the Bush administration and its loyal supporters (including the British Prime Minister) is starting to produce predictable results. Passengers are becoming unwilling to fly on planes with Arab males. Yesterday, British passengers on a Monarch Airways flight to Manchester "mutinied" because there were two Arab men on the plane:

British holidaymakers staged an unprecedented mutiny - refusing to allow their flight to take off until two men they feared were terrorists were forcibly removed.

The extraordinary scenes happened after some of the 150 passengers on a Malaga-Manchester flight overheard two men of Asian appearance apparently talking Arabic.

Passengers told cabin crew they feared for their safety and demanded police action. Some stormed off the Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 minutes before it was due to leave the Costa del Sol at 3am. Others waiting for Flight ZB 613 in the departure lounge refused to board it.

By "Asian," the article almost certainly means Pakistani or an Arab country in the Middle East. One can scour the article in vain for any sign beyond their physical appearance to suggest these men were terrorists. The only thing which approaches "evidence" is this:

The trouble in Malaga flared last Wednesday as two British citizens in their 20s waited in the departure lounge to board the pre-dawn flight and were heard talking what passengers took to be Arabic. Worries spread after a female passenger said she had heard something that alarmed her.

Passengers noticed that, despite the heat, the pair were wearing leather jackets and thick jumpers and were regularly checking their watches.

They wore leather jackets and looked "regularly" at their watches (something only terrorists do when travelling). And they were Arab and speaking a language which the "passengers took be Arabic." And one passenger claimed to hear "something that alarmed her" -- though the article does not say what that was (and presumably, had it been something genuinely alarming, rather than the by-product of deranged Malkian paranoia, security would have been notified immediately). But the behavioral aspects seem to be after-the-fact rationalizations, as the article reports:

A spokesman for the Civil Guard in Malaga said: "These men had aroused suspicion because of their appearance and the fact that they were speaking in a foreign language thought to be an Arabic language, and the pilot was refusing to take off until they were escorted off the plane."

One passenger, Jo Schofield, said they "looked really suspicious with their heavy clothing, scruffy, rough, appearance and long hair." And in a scene right out of some Orwellian sci-fi cliche, or the LGF Comment section (same thing), the article reported: "Some of the older children, who had seen the terror alert on television, were starting to mutter things like, 'Those two look like they're bombers.'"

As passengers refused to fly, police arrived and "escorted the two Asian passengers off the jet." The plane was searched, nothing was found, and it took off three hours later -- "without the two men on board." For the crime of looking like Arabs and speaking Arabic, these two travellers, completely innocent, were banned from flying on the plane and were forced to stay overnight in Malaga and fly the next day.

The British government conservative opposition party spokesman has described this incident exactly as what it is:

Patrick Mercer, the Tory Homeland Security spokesman, said last night: "This is a victory for terrorists. These people on the flight have been terrorised into behaving irrationally."

For those unfortunate two men to be victimised because of the colour of their skin is just nonsense."

Is it "nonsense"? Not according to the right-wing blogs which have commented on this story -- they are applauding the passengers' refusal to fly with Arab males. The new media darling, Charles Johnson, says that "one view" is that "the passengers were behaving irrationally," but then goes on to hail this vile incident as "evidence that people are beginning to distrust their governments’ ability to protect them, because of the politically correct touchy-feely multiculturalism they can see all around." Daily Pundit's Bill Quick proudly acknowledges that he does the same thing as these passengers did: "Profile? I sure do. While the flight is waiting and boarding, I'm seeing if there's anyone the rest of us might have to fight and where they're sitting."

Even the typically restrained Captain Ed says that "common sense dictates that people will act in their perceived self-interest in any case, and that means people will remain highly suspicious of Arabic men traveling together -- and more so when they act strangely" (emphasis added). While he pays lip service to the acknowledgment that this is "hardly" fair, he blames the passengers' behavior on the fact that Western governments "insist on playing political correctness games instead of focusing on real threats as the Israelis have done for decades."

It would be really great -- so, so comforting -- if terrorists could be identified by looking at their faces. But as is true with the use of torture as an interrogation tool, one can leave aside the moral questions if one insists because singling out Arab-looking males is a stupid, ineffective and totally irrational method for finding terrorists. Islamic extremists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, nationalities, and genders. If the category of suspects is narrowed to Arab-looking males, fewer things will help terrorists more since they will simply use terrorists whose physical appearance and demographic characteristics place them outside of the targeted class.

But it is the irrational fear here that is so striking, and really quite pitiful. They have whipped people into a state of such intense paranoia that they quiver at the sight of two Arab males on their plane. There is roughly one billion Muslims in the world, including some countries which have more than 100 million. The U.S. alone has 10 million. Enormous numbers of Muslims are not Arab and do not reside in Arab countries. There are 320 million people living in Arab states, and it should go without saying that only a tiny handful of them are "terrorists" (and that many terrorists reside elsewhere). To start refusing to fly or take buses or trains or be in the same room with the males in that population -- which is clearly the path we are on -- is just stupid, hysterical, and counter-productive from every perspective.

It can never be pointed out enough that the leading right-wing blogger is a proponent to this day of the interment of all Japanese-Americans during World War II. And the leading right-wing commentators traffic on a daily basis in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hysteria, depicting the world as consisting of little else other than the threats to our safety and our families posed by the dark, always-lurking enemies.

Beating that drum every day, like everything else, will have consequences. The behavior of the passengers on this flight -- applauded by the obvious suspects -- is just the tip of that fear-mongering iceberg. Indeed, the Daily Mail reports already that this is hardly an isolated incident:

Websites used by pilots and cabin crew were yesterday reporting further incidents. In one, two British women with young children on another flight from Spain complained about flying with a bearded Muslim even though he had been security-checked twice before boarding.

What is certain is that as government officials like Tony Blair and those in the Bush administration come to rely more and more on fear-mongering, there is a lot more incidents like this in our future, and many of them will be worse.

UPDATE: I want to clarify one point. Personally, I don't blame anyone for having irrational thoughts and fears prior to flying. Our brains generate irrational fears in all sorts of different situations, and particularly with the fear-mongering and relentless media hyping of every rumored terrorist threat, it is hardly surprising that people will have these thoughts.

But the point here is best illustrated by analogy. "Courage" is not the absence of fear, but is instead the taking of action notwithstanding that fear. Identically, "rationality" is not the absence of irrational fears or thoughts, but is instead the choice not to allow those fears and thoughts to dictate behavior. The blame lies not with those who entertain such fear, but with those who allow it to govern their conduct, and more so, those who purposely stoke and exaggerate those fears due either to their own fears and/or because doing so is to their advantage.

UPDATE II: Barbara O'Brien has an excellent analysis of this event, and compares it to the shooting by the London Police of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, who also committed the crime of looking Arabic and wearing a "suspicious" jacket.

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