The Imams

I’m curious what people think about the event that took place here in the Twin Cities with the Imams a couple weeks ago, where they were kicked off the plane for “suspicious behavior”.

My initial reaction was that it was complete bullshit, a bunch of uptight white-ass  Minnesotans who got scared about people of Mid-Eastern descent doing their normal prayers before getting on the plane.  It sure doesn’t take much imagination to see how that would happen.

However, the more I read about what happened, the less convinced I am of my initial take on the matter.  Believe it or not, it was Katherine Kersten’s column on the subject that first caused me to question what happened.  You have no idea how much it pains me to admit I was persuaded by Katherine Kersten.

Caveats abound, of course, the main one being that unless you are actually there, you have no idea whether one person’s definition of suspicious behavior would seem that way to you or not.  But I have been struck by the number of supposed witnesses who said that in fact they travel to the Mid-East all the time, and what they saw from the six imams was indeed unusual.

Also unusual were the requests for seatbelt extensions from passengers who wouldn’t seem to require them (and then simply rolled them up after they obtained them), or the specific attempts to get a pair in the front, middle, and back of the plane.  Would I be alarmed if I saw those things?  I have to admit that I would be alarmed and concerned, but I probably wouldn’t have raised the issue with any crew member.  I would have had a nice little bout of introspection as I tried to figure out if I was an uptight white-ass Minnesotan or these were actually people trying to down a plane.

Here’s Jane’s theory, and I think it’s compelling: Obviously these guys were not going to down the plane, as real terrorists tend to not do a dozen things to call attention to themselves while boarding the plane.  Instead, they were trying to get kicked off the plane, to force just this kind of brouhaha.

It’s really the only thing that makes sense.

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11 Responses to The Imams

  1. The link to the column is broken (missing the “:” after “http”), so here is one that works.

    Seems like the bottom line here is that even if they were trying to cause a scene, it’s hard to believe that Christian fundamentalists behaving in all the same ways would have been removed from the plane. Which isn’t to excuse it if it was, indeed, an intentional ploy, but it’s also hard to deny anti-Muslim sentiment is running high in the US these days.

  2. Thanks for correcting the link, Nate.

    I don’t see how the general truth of discrimination against Muslims abdicates an examination of what happened in this particular case. Clearly, and wrongly, anti-Muslim sentiment is running high in the U.S. these days. The collective fear impulse can be an ugly thing when it finds a target to latch onto. As I said in the post, my presumption is to assume discrimination has taken place in any situation of this type.

    But is it really the bottom line to say Christian fundamentalists wouldn’t have been removed from the plane? I don’t think so, especially considering there have been a large number of people removed from planes since 9/11 for far less than what these guys did, and the demographic profile includes all kinds of people with one thing in common: They were considered disruptive to the ability of the people flying the plane.

    I think the bottom line is that once you get on a plane, certain things aren’t going to fly, so to speak. Would imams have been kicked off the plane if they had been Mennonites who didn’t speak a word to anybody, but broke up into front, back and middle seating arrangements and asked for seatbelt extensions they didn’t need? Probably not. Would the imams have been kicked off the plane if they did their “loud” prayers, but then didn’t do any of the seating arrangement actions or asked for the seatbelts? I would hope not, and based on the airline account (of course) it was the the totality of those events that led to their decision.

    Now, again, I wasn’t there. I’m depending on written accounts from people whose motives I don’t usually trust. But the overall fact pattern suggests to me that these guys were trying to get kicked off the plane.

    And what the heck was US Airways supposed to do? You’ve got a group of six guys (allegedly) making inflammatory statements at the ticket counter to a number of passengers. Then they go on the plane and conspicuously arrange themselves in a pattern that fits previous hijacking attempts. Then they ask for seatbelt extensions they don’t need, and subsequently don’t use, another action identified previously as being risky because of it’s potential use as a weapon. A couple of the guys had one-way tickets. That all fits a profile, and not a single bit of that profile has anything to do with the fact that they are Muslim imams.

  3. dbeimers says:

    Aren’t Mennonites pacifists? I guess I’d be less concerned if a group of members who were avowed pacifists were demanding to be separated on a plane.

    And isn’t USAirways the airline that just kicked a woman off the plane for breast feeding? I’m not really scared of breast feeders, unless the kids are asking for it as part of an after-school snack between algebra problems.

    I haven’t read Katherine Kersten’s column, but I think a liberal knee-jerk reaction is that all Muslims are honorable, righteous, upstanding citizens whose “faith” makes them incapable of engaging in mischevious activity (as opposed to born again Christians, whose faith requires them to only act with malevolence). The reality falls in the vast middle ground. Personally, if the flight staff, who over the last few years have been trained and re-trained on how to respond to exactly these types of scenario, decide that the there is sufficient risk, I’ll defer to them.

  4. Katy says:

    I too was oddly persuaded by the appalling Katherine Kersten’s column on this topic. Having found a riff that rings with more than just the usual 2 ultra-conservative Strib subscribers (both of whom only read the online version and live in Rochester), I noticed that she wrote about the same topic again this week.

    At the risk of opening a huge can of worms, I also want to suggest that it is a little facile to simply argue that Christian fundamentalists would not have been pulled off the plane for the same behavior. I’m not sure it’s true, I agree with Doug there, but more importantly the comparison is inapt. The reality of the situation is that Christian fundamentalists, while having engaged in many historical atrocities in the name of their religion, don’t have a recent history of using planes as weapons in the United States. And our country has not recently pissed off the entire Christian world through our incompetent foreign policies. So while any behavior by Muslims that seems “suspicious” certainly requires a gut-check to make sure one is not stereotyping before one assumes that terrorism is afoot, it seems like the fact that they are Muslim has to factor into the totality of the circumstances, whether we like it or not.

    And, fearing that I’m sounding too much like Katherine Kersten here, I’ll sign off.

  5. kelly says:

    I think Jane is right, it was baiting.

    I will also take Katie’s bait on christian fundamentalists. You either support stereotyping, or you don’t, and granted you just read that article so perhaps you do. Until very recently christian fundamentalists were bombing each other in Ireland, you’ve got armed christian militias in the US who have vocally said they’ll be violent, etc. We are just accustomed to their wackiness. The method of terrorism isn’t pattented so that no Christian fundamentalist has articulated a use for planes probably isn’t the exclusive domain of jihadists.

    On the other hand, stereotyping is bad, and I would say the net affect of looking on our muslim friends suspiciously is not worth the trade-off. That is, one where we feel more protected but aren’t.

    And frankly, I think they just proved their point.

  6. Stereotyping and profiling aren’t the same thing.

    Stereotyping would go like this: “Oh, those crazy Muslims! They’re always screaming their prayers in the airport and then telling people at the ticket counter and on the plane about how they support extreme forms of Muslim law. And you know how those Muslims are about going onto a plane and breaking up into groups so they have a pair by the front, middle, and rear exits! And if I have to be on a plane one more time where they ask for belt extensions, even though they don’t need them, and then, instead of using them, roll them up and put them under their seat, I’m going to scream. Those crazy Muslims are always doing that stuff!”

    That’s stereotyping.

    Profiling, on the other hand, is when you have a pattern of activity that has been identified as being a potential threat to the safety of a flight, including taking certain positions on a plane, asking for things on a plane that might be useful as a weapon, or making statements that are regarded as extreme. Individually none of that probably means much, but collectively it’s an issue.

    Let me get this straight: You’re saying that because Americans have an unfortunate tendency to discriminate, we should not in any way attempt to analyze the behavior of any people who fly for signs of potential wrongdoing?

  7. Katy says:

    Katherine Kersten supports the conspiracy theory:

  8. brent says:

    i think it is somewhat telling that the security guy from LAX major concern is that broad patterns of discrimination against minority groups is necessary to successfully screen terror threats.

  9. Seatbelt extensions? Man, I hope I never get cornered in a dark alley by a guy with a seatbelt extension. He might try to pull it low and tight, across my waist.

    If it was deliberate, I’m all for it. Protest security theater with insecurity theater.

  10. John, I’m pretty sure a guy cornering you in a dark alley with a seatbelt extension, while you have nothing, could really fuck you up. Just the skin burns alone…

    I agree it’s certainly not the weapon of choice, though, and I’m not sure how wrapping a belt around someone’s neck keeps others from charging at you in a highjacking situation, the same way a knife or gun or lightsaber would.

    As for the Schneier link, I think anyone who has watched the farce of airport baggage check agrees with his overall point, but I think it’s a non-sequitor here. These were people already on the plane, engaging in specific actions that have been previously identified as being potential threats when on an airplane. I’m not clear what the opportunity cost is in terms of dollars (one of Schneier’s main points) by having flight attendants look for suspicious behavior empirically associated with hijacking attempts. What else should the flight attendants have been focusing on at that point? Handing out pillows?

    And, what specific sacrifice have we as a society made as a result of supporting the idea that people shouldn’t do certain things on planes? It’s not clear to me why we can’t enforce those rules and still work aggressively to make sure Muslims aren’t discriminated against.

    I think the fact that thousands of Muslims fly in the U.S. every day without getting kicked off planes or harrassed is evidence of that. The only people who got the boot were the people who (in my view) intentionally did things to get kicked off by mimicing a security threat.

  11. Katy says:

    Yeah, I’m still a little unclear on the seatbelt extension issue. The papers just keep saying it could be used as a weapon, but I’m not quite sure how. Seems far less effective than boxcutters, anyway.

    As far as this argument that real terrorists wouldn’t be as obvious as these guys, it’s fine in hindsight but I’m not sure where it gets you when you’re trying to judge whether the other passengers and airline acted appropriately. Do you really expect the airlines to say, those crazy guys! They’re just ACTING like terrorists! The real terrorists would be much more subtle. We’ll leave them on the plane.

    Clearly the airline has to react to any suspicious behavior, be it obvious or subtle.

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