Juan Williams’ firing over remarks about Muslim airline passengers may have the perverse effect of worsening airline security if travelers and airport personnel become self-conscious about reporting suspicious behavior.
It was, after all, this kind of fear of being branded discriminatory that led a Portland airline agent to clear two 9/11 bombers — including Mohammed Atta — through to their fateful destination in Boston: Four years after the attacks, former US Airlines employee Michael Tuohey said he was still haunted by guilt that he did not act on his suspicions.
“I said to myself, ‘If this guy doesn’t look like an Arab terrorist, then nothing does.’ Then I gave myself a mental slap, because in this day and age, it’s not nice to say things like this,” Tuohey told the Maine Sunday Telegram. “You’ve checked in hundreds of Arabs and Hindus and Sikhs, and you’ve never done that. I felt kind of embarrassed.”
And yet it was exactly that kind of instinct by fellow passengers that initially kept shoebomber Richard Reid off his first attempt to board a Paris-Miami flight on December 21, 2001. The world was still jittery in the months following 9/11, and travelers were more concerned about their safety than political correctness. Reid’s disheveled appearance attracted notice; ditto the fact he did not check any luggage for the transatlantic flight.
Reid was cleared to fly, by French security, however, the next day—on American Airlines flight 63—and were he more competent, and the passengers less alert to his appearance, that flight number would also go down into the annals of successful Islamic terrorist attacks against passenger aircraft.
Three years after the shoe-bombing incident, I experienced my own episode of terrorist profiling (and maybe that’s what we should call it: not “racial” profiling but “terrorist” profiling, because the two are completely different. The latter does not arise out of irrational prejudice).
Here’s what happened: In January and February, 2004, there was a flurry of terrorist threats against international flights between London and Paris and Washington; some flights were cancelled; aircraft were grounded and searched; in one instance, F-16 fighter jets escorted a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Dulles.
In March, my husband and I took our three children on a holiday in Europe: our return flight, aboard Air France, connected through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. We had a three-hour layover before we could board our homebound jet to Washington-Dulles. After clearing international security and poking around the terminal for a bit, the five of us settled into benches in the empty departure lounge—empty, that was, except for two suspicious-looking men in a bench opposite ours.
I say suspicious because they matched every profile of a terrorist I’d ever read: Both looked to be about 25 or 26, of Arab descent, beards, dressed in the modern Atta traveling fashion of jeans and t-shirts. Neither had any carry-on bags for an eight-hour flight. One of the men was reading an Arabic newspaper while the other seemed twitchy—he kept looking around, and repeatedly kept pulling out his documents from a small bag to check them over again. I became fixated on them for the next two hours: I had books and magazines but my eyes kept straying to watch what they were up to. After a little bit, both men took to pacing nervously—when they weren’t looking over their documents again. I was trying to think of what purpose they would have to travel to Washington: They were not with family members. They were obviously not businessmen—and yet they were too old to be students.
I leaned over to my husband, who was absorbed in a book: “Have you been watching these guys?” I asked my husband quietly, keen that the children not overhear me.
I explained what I’d been seeing, and he took to occasionally glancing up from his reading to keep an eye on them as well. Gradually more passengers began filtering into the lounge as the flight departure grew closer. Then, promptly at three o’clock, the two men went over to a large window, fell to their knees and began elaborately praying to Mecca.
“That’s it,” I told him. “I’m not getting on this plane.”
“I’m sure it’s okay,” he murmured back. “They would have been pretty thoroughly checked by security.”
“The shoebomber was checked by security.”
“Let me go speak to the people at the Air France desk.”
There was a very French-looking security man: white bushy hair, a big white moustache, and a girth that suggested he enjoyed his duck confit and lunchtime Bordeaux as much as his other fellow citizens of the Republic.
He listened to my husband, nodded, glanced over at the two men, then came over to speak to me. I stepped away from the children, who were all pre-occupied with their electronic playthings. I reported everything I’d watched and he listened gravely—I could not tell whether he thought he was dealing with a hysterical mother or not.
“Madame, I can assure you that no aspect of security has been overlooked on this flight.”
“Why are you so certain.”
He smiled slightly. “Because I am privy to security measures that I cannot discuss with you. French security is not so—ahh—let me say it is different from American security. Let me repeat: this is a very safe flight.”
Over his shoulder I watched the two men join the boarding queue: they looked actively jumpy by this point.
“And what happens if we don’t want to get on. Can we change to another flight?”
The security guard excused himself for a moment, spoke briefly with the gate crew, and returned to us. “There is a flight tomorrow morning. It would be our pleasure to change you to that flight if that is your preference. No charge of course. But you will have to wait for us to remove your bags from the plane.”
My husband and I discussed it between us. He was prepared to go ahead but equally okay to cancel out of the flight if I was that nervous; I felt a little embarrassed by my fears. Then I looked at the bent line of the heads of my children, fighting imaginary enemies on their toys. Was I going to trust their fates to the assurances of an airline security guard?
“If we stayed, we could get a room at one of the airport hotels, take the train in to Paris for dinner, and return here tomorrow morning,” I proposed. “That wouldn’t be so bad—”
“The alternative,” I continued, “would be for you to have me digging my nails into your forearm for eight hours…”
We waited for our bags to be removed from the plane. The children were delighted at this turn of events. They had never seen Paris.
The next day we had a pleasant flight home. And the flight we had rejected landed without incident. So, did we do the right thing?
Certainly every one of us acts self-protectively, weighing the risks of any given situation. I have never since refused to get on a plane for fears of another passenger—but then, I’ve never been confronted again with such suspiciously acting travelers on a flight that had recently been under terrorist threat.
Now, nearly seven years later, and in the wake of the Juan Williams incident, I ask myself: Would I make that same decision again?
Without question. And I hope I would still have the guts to report a troubling passenger to an airline clerk without fear that I might be branded racist.