7/20/2004

suspicious things I've done on an airplane

In response to this, this, and this, which have triggered accusations of hoax, reasonable explanations and debunkings, I thought I should write about some of the things I have done on airplanes for some perspective.

For reference, I am about 5'8", dark black hair and untrimmed beard length about three to four inches. I weigh about 160lbs and have brown skin. I am of Indian descent but am frequently mistaken for Arab. I often wear religious headdress when traveling (a white cotton cap with gold trim).

Here's some of the things I have done on an airplane, and why:

- Speaking a foreign language in hushed tones with other similar males

My language is a variant of Gujarati, with many Arabic vocabulary words. I consider it rude to talk loudly on a plane, since people are sleeping, and prefer to talkin my language with my friends or family if we are discussing personal things because in my experience, people eavesdrop in close quarters.

- getting up frequently to visit the bathroom

Due to rapid dehydration, I drink a lot on planes, mostly water and ginger ale. Also I go to the bathroom to wash in preparation for prayer, which I do in the rear of the aircraft near the stewardess area (with their permission). I prefer praying on a plane to praying in the terminal because I usually get stared at intensely and it's discomfitting; the rear of the plane affords more privacy and with zero exceptions, the plane crew has always been understanding and helpful.

- taking pictures of the plane

I love taking photos from the window seat, I've got thousands of prints taken of geography and cities. I have taken photos of the actual plane interior as well, mainly family shots (like my daughter sleeping) or just for memory's sake (I took photos of my first trip on a 777 because the interior is like an office building, beautiful, roomy, softly lit, etc). I also have taken video of the Flight Information displays which show your current location and geography.

- made strange signals and gestures to other people in my group

Usually, shouting across the aisles is not conducive to communication. In groups, many times I use gestures to save myself the trouble of extricating myself from my wedged-in seat position and navigate about the cabin obstacle course of food carts, children, guys waiting to use the bathroom etc.

- not been friendly to other passengers

Especially when traveling alone, I sometimes don't feel like socializing. The more cramped the quarters, the more others are in my personal space, and coach class always makes me less inclined to share. I'd rather be in my shell than have to interact with other people, and do my own thing.

The bottom line is that I'm an American, but I'm also ethnically Indian, and religiously Bohra, and that means that there are lots of cultural things I do that won't make always sense to someone of whiter, Christian persuasion. Like travel to do a pilgrimage in a war zone. Just the logistics of praying on time make me behave in oft-bizarre ways.

The bottom line though is that the threat of a hijacking scares me too. I travel with my family, including my toddler, and it's her safety, not mine, that I fear for (especially now that a hijacking is a fatal event for the passengers rather than just an inconvenience). But there's a legitimate threshold for suspicion, and there are legitimate authorities and professionals to handle those assessments. If the threshold gets lowered, or assessed by amateurs, then the number of false positives will overwhelem the ability of those professionals to find (let alone cope with) the true threat. Chicken Little ain't just a movie, it's a parable which is very relevant and bears remembering.

12 comments:

ubrgeek said...

Very well said.

Brendon J. Wilson said...

Excellent - a rational, thoughtful explanation of the things that should be obvious to most people, "war on terror" or no. But then again, most people aren't rational or thoughtful, and hence you will inevitably still run into trouble or misunderstandings at some point.

Joe said...

"getting up frequently to visit the bathroom"

Yes, but do you do it as the aircraft is preparing for landing, and in a group?

I admit that their decision not to go one at a time could just be a lack of understanding with regard to the rules of US flights and/or the English instructions.

And I'm not familiar enough with Islamic rituals to know if it's OK to delay one's prayers by fifteen minutes or so (until the plane has landed).

What are your thoughts on this?

Incidentally, why wouldn't the stewardesses have asked the guys, "Excuse me sir, can you please stay in your seat until the pilot has turned off the 'fasten seat belts' sign?" ... I've seen them do it to a (white American) father whose kid was had to pee so bad that he was crying.

Jonathan Davis said...

Who do you blame for your sorrows? The people who get a bit jumpy when a man who fits the stereotype of a devout Muslim carries out the actions of a stereotypical hijacker or the people who have made all of you Americans (you included) afraid of being hijacked?

You are victim of the 911 hijackers. They have seared into the consciousness of millions of people the fact that if they are unlucky enough to be flying on a targeted airliner then death will most likely come in the form of a Middle Eastern or South Asian hijacker.

I am sorry that you have been discomfited, but I am sure you understand the alarm and caution.

You appear to know what alarms people, perhaps it is time you were proactive in reassuring your fellow passengers or making a gentle gesture or sacrifice like not wearing your prayer cap, photographing aircraft after asking permission and being polite to fellow passengers.

I was nearly arrested in Belgrade airport for photographing the airport and aircraft. As soon as the police approached me I realised how dodgy this may appear. I politely explained I was just curious. They let me go on my way after some questioning.

In my view they were completely right in stopping and questioning me.

This is the price we all pay now. It is predictable, justified and avoidable.

May your future travels be safe and untroubled.

Kind regards

Jonathan

Bug Me Not said...

"This is the price we all pay now. It is predictable, justified and avoidable."

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Our acceptance of the "justified" curtailing of our freedoms for no tangible return in safety horrifies me in a way 9/11 can't. The American in me weeps at your philosophy and hopes the majority of my countrymen do not feel the way that you do.

5000! said...

Yes, but do you do it as the aircraft is preparing for landing, and in a group?Yes. It's your last chance to go. There are plenty of people that go to use the bathroom as soon as they announce that they're preparing for landing. Pay attention the next time you're on a plane.

Incidentally, why wouldn't the stewardesses have asked the guys, "Excuse me sir, can you please stay in your seat until the pilot has turned off the 'fasten seat belts' sign?"You would have to ask the stewardess. But if the attendant didn't do her job people shouldn't be using that as a tool to justify their irrationality.

2nd poster...

Who do you blame for your sorrows? The people who get a bit jumpy when a man who fits the stereotype of a devout Muslim carries out the actions of a stereotypical hijacker or the people who have made all of you Americans (you included) afraid of being hijacked?I blame the people that plan and commit acts of terror. That's the whole point. None of the people that we're discussing are terrorists, and you seem to be happy to ignore that. In fact everybody seems to ignore repeatedly is that NONE OF THESE PEOPLE ARE TERRORISTS.

Do you know anything about Islam? There are black muslims, white muslims, southeast Asian muslims. One of the many problems with trying to justify focusing our attentions on "stereotypical hijacker" is that people who plan terror attacks know this as well. If we spend all of our energy eyeballing all the brown men that we think are terrorists they'll use Asians, or Africans, or caucasians. Do you know what nationality John Walker Lindh was?

In addition to that, it's just what you said: a stereotype. Do you understand that this man is Indian? Not Saudi, not Jordanian, not Middle Eastern. That's the problem with a stereotype. It's wrong most of the time.

You appear to know what alarms people, perhaps it is time you were proactive in reassuring your fellow passengers or making a gentle gesture or sacrifice like not wearing your prayer cap, photographing aircraft after asking permission and being polite to fellow passengers. I can't believe that you are seriously telling this person that they should consider not wearing their prayer cap. Do you realize how offensive you're being? Isn't it repeated over and over and over that we're fighting for the freedoms that we have in America? Including the freedom of speech, the freedom to chose a religion. We you can't champion the causes of freedom by stifling these very same freedoms. You're fine with it now, because you're probably a white man. The fact that you want to equate your restricted ability to shoot photographs with this author's freedom to wear his religious garmet is outrageous and shows a serious lack of consideration for the culture and beliefs of others.

This is the price we all pay now. It is predictable, justified and avoidable.<

As you clarified several times in your comments, this is all your view. The beauty of democracy is that we're not all subject to your view. In fact, the whole point is to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. We've been down this road before and it ended with Japanese interment camps. Do we really want to revisit that?

Lastly, I have to point out that as far as these comments go, attempting to sanitize irrationality, alarmism and close-mindedness under a veil of politeness does not make them any less awful.

5000! said...

I'd also like to point out, because some people seem to miss it, that the idea that the author is sharing is that these are things that he has done that, if you or I as a caucasian person did them, wouldn't cause any alarm at all. The behavior is not "stereotypically terrorist." The skin color is. That's what makes the response to it unacceptable.

Morgan said...

We should be wary of anybody who tells us that we should classify as "suspicious behavior" such bizarre and unusual activities as 1) going to the bathroom, 2) taking pictures while on vacation, or 3) speaking in what my mother used to call your "indoor voice."

What are the "actions of a stereotypical hijacker," Johnathan? Can you tell me? I haven't heard so far any defintion of "suspicious behavior" that isn't only suspicious when performed by a person who looks Islamic.

juliuss said...

To me it's interesting to compare the Oklahoma City bombing with 9/11. Yes 9/11 was bigger and more tragic. However, after the bombing in OK nobody decided that all rural white men would suddenly just have to deal with racial profiling for the sake of increased security. Why such a different response when the terrorists aren't white?

AliasUndercover said...

Those who would give up freedom for safety deserve neither. You know who said that.
Remeber how they were saying "... then the terrorists win" all the time right after 9/11? Well, in my opinion, when the people of this nation become such cowards that they have to wet themselves whenever they see someone with brown skin, THEN the terrorists have really won.
Sure, I may be a little more cautious now, but that's mostly because I think the government/paranoiacs out there are watching everything now. The last thing I need is the Feds at my door.
I refused to be afraid of a particular group of people because a few crazies did something horrible. After all, I am Irish...

Morgan said...

Julius, I was thinking the exact same thing. The Oklahoma City bombing killed about 180 people - the second worst act of mass murder on American soil in history. Compare also the willingness of the gunmen in shooting massacres such as Columbine, Jonesboro, 101 California St San Francisco, or the 1989 school shooting in Stockton, to take their own lives in the midst of murdering several others. Since the weapon of choice in these cases is a firearm and not an explosive, somehow they don't count as terrorism (even though more people died at Columbine than in the 1993 WTC bombing).

The issue here is that terrorism post-9/11 has been framed as a war paradigm. We're at war with the enemy. This begs the question, who is the enemy? If you asked the average American-on-the-street, they'd reply "Islamic extremists." Many Americans have a misconception that they can identify a person's religion on sight, let alone whether or not they're "extremist."

Acts of terrorism and mass murder in the 1990s, when inflicted by white Americans, weren't framed under a war paradigm. A man kills a dozen people of his own nationality? Well, he must be crazy. He's a lone nut. It's easy to dismiss each and every one of those events as an isolated incident, without relevance to any historical anchor. Since the assorted mass murders of the 1990s weren't framed as the actions of a concerted centralized threat, the war paradigm was never established, and so there was never any need to point fingers at a great collective "enemy."

A Translucent Amoebae said...

i'm not sure if this would fit within this topic header, but i've often thought that as a practical joke, it would be HELLaious to cut out of aluminum foil a siloette of a Uzi machine gun or some such, and then sew it into the lining of a friends suitcase...!!! ha ha ha... wouldn't his face be RED...!!!