Monday, August 21, 2006

Patriot Acts

by Sara Robinson

From the London Daily Mail:

British holidaymakers staged an unprecedented mutiny - refusing to allow their flight to take off until two men they feared were terrorists were forcibly removed.

The extraordinary scenes happened after some of the 150 passengers on a Malaga-Manchester flight overheard two men of Asian appearance apparently talking Arabic.

Passengers told cabin crew they feared for their safety and demanded police action. Some stormed off the Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 minutes before it was due to leave the Costa del Sol at 3am. Others waiting for Flight ZB 613 in the departure lounge refused to board it.

The incident fuels the row over airport security following the arrest of more than 20 people allegedly planning the suicide-bombing of transatlantic jets from the UK to America. It comes amid growing demands for passenger-profiling and selective security checks.

It also raised fears that more travellers will take the law into their own hands - effectively conducting their own 'passenger profiles'.

Let's see. A frightened mob selects a couple victims, accuses them of being would-be criminals without any evidence whatsoever, forcibly robs them of the cost of transcontinental airfare, and threatens anyone (pilots and airline personnel) that questions either their verdict or their right to exact "justice."

There's only one word for this. It's vigilantism, pure and simple. It's no different than any other kind of lynch mob. And it is beneath the dignity of a civilized society.

The reasons for and righteousness of the anger on display here are under furious discussion on both the left and right sides of the blogosphere. (See The Mahablog and Glenn Greenwald for two useful perspectives.)

But there's far more at stake here than meets the eye. If these vigilante mobs are allowed to get their way on airplanes, what's to stop them from taking their show on the road? Are we going to see subway mobs assaulting brown people on train platforms to "prevent" subway bombings? Are restarauters going to find themselves under pressure from upset diners not to hire -- or seat -- certain "frightening" classes of people? Will neighborhood groups press realtors to stop selling local homes to specific ethnic groups, for fear property values will drop? Or will they, perhaps, subject "undesirable" neighbors to harassment campaigns until they're forced to move on?

This all sounds far-fetched -- until you realize that we're hardly forty years past an era when most of this was standard operating procedure in much of America. Vigilante justice, racial segregation in public accommodations, real estate redlining, and sundown towns are part of a past that we've worked hard to leave behind. It will be a disgrace to all of us if we allow a few irrational bullies on airplanes put us on the road to bringing it all back.

Greater sanity is called for. The airlines need to start by stating, unequivocally, that they trust the decisions of their security staff on the ground. And even if they can't make that statement with a clear conscience, allowing vigilante mobs to intimidate their passengers and crews isn't the way to solve it. They are, after all, the ones paying for the Big Security Show down at the gates. Every time pilots allow the vigilantes to win, they undermine public confidence in that system.

But the buck really stops with the passengers. Which means those of us who fly frequently need to sit down and have a long chat with ourselves.

We know, without question, that bully squads bent on violence believe they're acting on the tacit values of the community. That motivation is certainly at work here -- and every time the mob succeeds, that belief is validated further. We also know that vigilantism stops when the larger community steps up and says, "No. You don't represent our values."

Today, I've been trying to imagine myself in this situation. Would I have the courage to speak up in support of the flight crew and the accused? What would I say? How much danger would I be in? Could I count on the better sense of my fellow passengers, and rely on them to support me? Or would I simply become a target myself? And, if that happened, could I handle the consequences?

You never know the answers to these kinds of questions until you're standing in that moment, of course. But a little role-playing now -- thinking through the most effective choices of word and action, deciding how much I'd be willing to risk -- might come in handy somewhere down the runway. At the very least, I could see myself saying: You put them off this plane, and I'll be staying, too. And I'd invite everyone who believes in equal justice -- and who refuses to live in fear of strangers -- to pack up their stuff and march down the jetway with me.

This much I know: There are some principles worth more than any plane ticket.

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