What Fear and an Abundance of Caution Look Like

by Bob Schwartz

On Tuesday, a few days after Paris, a woman on a Spirit Airlines flight waiting to leave BWI panicked when she saw a man, apparently Middle Eastern, watching a news report on his phone. She went to the back of the plane with her child, reported the man, and then he and three others were taken off the plane, questioned, and released.

You might have missed this underreported incident, so here is an extended excerpt from the Baltimore Sun report:

The four people removed Tuesday morning from a Spirit Airlines flight from BWI to Chicago amid concerns about a threat were released without charges after being questioned, Maryland Transportation Authority police said.

A female passenger told the flight crew she saw suspicious activity, which turned out to be someone watching a news report on a smartphone, said Sgt. Jonathan Green, a spokesman for the authority’s police department, which patrols the airport.

“Everything added up to create a situation where she felt concerned,” Green said of the witness. “Everything was done in the interest of safety.”

Spirit Flight 969 was taxiing before takeoff when the passenger alerted a flight attendant, Spirit Airlines said.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the plane returned to the gate,” the airline said.

Officers removed three men and a woman from the flight, Green said. He said those passengers included a married couple, who were traveling with a family member, and a male passenger sitting near them.

Green declined to identify the people removed, including whether they were of Middle Eastern descent, as several other passengers described them….

Moments later, the pilot told passengers over the intercom that the plane was returning to the gate.

“We get back, and two police officers come onto the plane,” Farella said. The officers asked three men and a woman to follow them off the plane, she said. All of the passengers were evacuated later so the plane could be searched, Farella said.

Transportation Security Administration rescreened all of the baggage on the flight, including the bags of the four passengers who were pulled off, said TSA spokesman Mike England. “No threat was found,” he said.

One of the mantras that has been repeated after 9/11—but goes back to the world wars—is if you see something, say something. But this has never meant: If you see anything, say anything.

Under the most normal circumstances (if there is such a thing) different people are more or less fearful of different things. And under those circumstances, when that fear seems very irrational and ungrounded in reality, we might even label it neurotic or pathological. As in paranoia.

When circumstances change, as with actual or perceived terror threats, the measuring stick changes. We not only allow for heightened vigilance; we encourage it.

A lot of people carry around a bit of fear and a bit of intolerance and prejudice. Sometimes they are self-aware about it, sometimes not. Most manage to keep it in check, because life goes on, and because expressing those fears and prejudices is not universally acceptable.

Events like Paris take the lid right off that container. It isn’t surprising that ordinary people have trouble figuring out just how far to go with it. But we do expect experts—airline security, police—to bring some discernment to the situation.

In this case, it is hard to see how a man watching a phone constitutes even the tiniest evidence of a problem. If the woman told someone that was all she saw, the airline and the police should have exercised their own discretion, right then. And if the woman misreported what she saw, we might think she was misperceiving because of her own fear or actually just making things up.

The worst conclusion to reach, but one we’ve already lived through with 9/11, is that anytime a Middle Eastern type is reported to be doing anything that in any way could be construed by anybody as troubling, it will be the subject of suspicion, investigation, and detention.

Which isn’t surprising. Which will be familiar not only to Middle Eastern types, but to black people as well. And which isn’t an abundance of caution. It is just plain old prejudice.

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