Bob Schwartz

Tag: fear

What Fear and an Abundance of Caution Look Like

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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Return to the Four Freedoms

Four Freedoms

As we approach the holiday season, we might think about the big metaphorical American family gathering around the big metaphorical American table. One thing you notice, as with a lot of families and tables, is that there’s going to be a few disagreements, some pretty heated.

But at some point, in keeping with the spirit of the season, the family will be looking for common ground, those shared ideals that unite us. Unfortunately, we seem to be losing sight of those ideals because, to be honest, it isn’t always clear what they are.

In early 1941, while war was already raging in Europe, but almost a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR gave one of the most famous speeches of the era and of American history. It was the 1941 State of the Union address, but it will always be known as the Four Freedoms speech. To bolster American support for our almost inevitable involvement in the war, he enunciated the Four Freedoms we would be fighting for: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

Art turned out to play an important role in keeping these ideals front and center, especially as the prospect of American sacrifice became a reality. The most famous example may be a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell (above), who was then and maybe still the greatest American illustrator. The Library of Congress explains:

Taken from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech to Congress, the “Four Freedoms” –Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear–became a rallying point for the United States during WWII. Artist Norman Rockwell created four vignettes to illustrate the concepts. Rockwell intended to donate the paintings to the War Department, but after receiving no response, the painter offered them to the Saturday Evening Post, where they were first published on February 20, 1943. Popular reaction was overwhelming, and more than 25,000 readers requested full-color reproductions suitable for framing.

Some will say that these Four Freedoms are today “controversial” because we don’t seem to be able as a nation—as an American family—to agree on the strategies to maintain and attain those ideals. Those disagreements are undeniable, as are the related invective, disparagement, and even hatefulness that goes with them. But those disagreements can’t make us give up. On the contrary, they should send us back to the words of FDR, getting past the ideologies and labels, and really look within and at the family of Americans.

Do you really believe that these ideals are exclusive to you, and not shared by others of good will? Are your principles and affiliations so very important that you would sacrifice those ideals to be “right?” Or can we come to the table, dig deeper, and not leave until we have given up a little of our own self-importance and focused instead on getting a little closer to the country and world envisioned in the shared Four Freedoms? And maybe just a little closer to each other?