The song Flyin by Regina Spektor isn’t about air travel, but when it came on as I was headed to Logan airport last Thursday, 9/15, it seemed appropriate in its quirky sadness. If you don’t know it, it’s a really upbeat-sounding song about abuse.
I was flying to Chicago’s O’Hare and continuing on to Detroit Metro, an airport that that had recently made news after it wrongfully detained passengers on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, four days before.
I remember sitting in my high school psychology class, watching the fall of the second tower. I remember the moment the first plane crashing went from being a possible horrific accident to a very deliberate attack. I remember feeling stunned and frightened and like it was all possibly a dream I’d wake up from to find I was late for school. It’s hard to describe the moment of realization that those planes were full of passengers just trying to get somewhere, possibly home. At that point in my life I had never flown, and was in that moment I was certain I never would.
Time passed. Life happened. I moved to Boston leaving my family and friends in Michigan. For the past year, other than walking and the subway, planes are my main form of transportation. A decade after the attack I didn’t think twice about scheduling a flight for the week of 9/11. In fact the proximity didn’t even occur to me until I read Shoshana Hebshi’s blog post Some Real Shock and Awe: Racially Profiled and Cuffed in Detroit two days before my flight.
As Hebshi’s plane sat on the runway she went from calm certaintity that nothing was wrong, to relief as a flight of stairs approached the plane after 30+ minutes of sitting on the runway after landing, to worrying along with her fellow passengers as they were warned of the consequences of leaving their seats and armed officers began to congregate and board the plane and approach her row.
Hebshi was detained after her plane from Denver landed in Detroit, along with two other passengers sitting next to her. She chose to fly on 9/11 thinking lines at security would be lighter than normal on the anniversary of the attacks. The three (“two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and ... a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio”) were surrounded by armed officers and ordered off their plane, cuffed, patted down, and loaded into the backs of squad cars. They were detained for hours; they were searched and re-searched and strip searched. And they were questioned by officers, home-land security, and the FBI without any initial explanation of why they were being held. Hebshi, herself an American citizen, was asked if she spoke English while being held in a guarded cell containing only a hard cot and a toilet. In short, the three travelers were treated like criminals who had no business being in their own country.
Eventually it came to light that a passenger had reported suspicious activity in their row. The activity was that the two male passengers allegedly used the restroom in succession. Anyone who has ever flown can tell you this happens all the time. Hard to say why. It’s like your sister mentioning she has to pee on a road trip and you realizing that you, too, have to pee. And it’s just easier to do so when you don’t have to climb over the person sitting next to you, so you wait until they get back then get up. Oh, logic.
I’ve always been proud to hail from Detroit, even though things like football records, former mayors, and the public school system sometime call my pride into question. Reading this post, I wasn’t anywhere near proud of my most frequented airport’s “security measures”. If we trust security to do their job, as we all strive to follow their ever-restrictive regulations, then why are innocent passengers detained, searched, and questioned on the basis of a paranoid complaint of using the restroom suspiciously.
In the wake of 9/11, American media (mainly, but many other sources including language) began to construct the image of a terrorist in the same way Hollywood constructs the image of beauty. Suddenly terrorist was used to mean vaguely Middle Eastern or Muslim or possibly even Jewish Canadian. It’s used to mean visually different in a way that capitalizes on frightened peoples’ discomfort. And the laws that passed in the aftermath like the Patriot Act gave way and voice to blind racist accusations. Any immigrant suspected by a law enforcement official of vaguely terrorist ties could be monitored, searched without knowledge, indefinitely detained or deported.
The Patriot Act, among other things, significantly reduced restrictions on law enforcements rights to search and monitor phone, Internet, financial and other personal records without a court order. It also allowed for law officers to search homes, offices, and other places without the owner’s knowledge. Most notably, the act made provisions for law enforcement to detain and deport immigrants suspected of terrorism or related acts. The law also authorized indefinite detentions of immigrants.
Just when I thought homophobia was the last legalized form of discrimination in this country.
I landed in Detroit at midnight, having breezed through security at Logan, in fact I was waved around the body scanner with another woman while the men before an after us (black, Asian) were told to wait and walk through it. On my return trip to Boston I was waved through security in Detroit, again I wasn’t patted down or made to go through the body scanner. It would seem a decent smile and pale freckled skin gets you places, and those places are to your gate on time with your rights intact.
During the car ride home I was telling my sisters about being waved through security and Hebshi’s experience a few days before. They hadn’t heard the story. And my little sister, god love her, responded that I was waved through because I “don’t look like a terrorist”. Even to the smartest twelve year old I know “terrorist” is a way someone looks. And according to homeland security her definition seems to be correct.
On my layover in Chicago both on the way to Detroit and back home to Boston the TSA was doing “random” checks at gates. This meant pulling people aside, checking identification, searching meticulous and delicately (if you’re me) packed bags. I saw three people pulled aside before I bordered my jet to Boston. Two black men and a white man. No one under 30. No women.
It makes me wonder if Hebshi would have been detained at all if her fellow row mates were female.
A big part of this is how sparingly the word terrorist is used when it comes to anyone who looks “white”. Or in reference to Americans who commit domestic acts of terrorism.
I remember learning about Timothy McVeigh in school and never hearing the word terrorist. I remember reading about the attack on the Norwegian summer camp by Anders Behring Breivik and never reading the word terrorist. In fact when the story broke the attack was attributed at first, with no proof, to Muslim extremists, when, in fact, Breivik is a Christian extremist. Yes, those exist.
My great hope is that thoughtful pieces like Hebshi’s document of her experience and injustice in Detroit bring us closer to a world in which the safest way to fly isn’t white. Or perhaps it’s time for Disney to unveil a Muslim prince and princess, so at the very least children aren’t raised to believe terrorist is an ethnicity.
We live in a world where Casey Anthony walks while Troy Davis is executed. Where beyond a reasonable doubt is as subjective as the word right.
Kate Sloan is a writer and editor living in Boston. She writes a blog called staycutegirl and is a contributing writer for The Idler. A list of her posts can be found here. Follow her @Kate_Sloan on twitter.