Are the terrorists winning? The purpose of terrorism is to intimidate targeted populations into surrendering their freedoms. How far advanced is this process in the United States?
--Osama bin Laden From a videotape broadcast on BBC after 9/11
Ahmed Farooq, a Canadian citizen born in Saudi Arabia, was preparing to take off from Denver for the last leg of his return trip to Winnipeg when he realized it was time for his evening prayers. The 27-year-old radiology student turned to his seat mate, a fellow Canadian of an East Indian extraction, and asked if they could change seats so he could have some privacy.
It's not uncommon for nervous fliers to offer a quick prayer before takeoff. However, the sight of a young Arab man whispering under his breath to a second swarthy young man of an ambiguous ethnic background, and then closing his eyes to pray, triggered an alarm on the part of a fellow passenger who had been watching Farooq through slitted eyes during the first leg of the trip from San Francisco. By this time, the suspicious passenger was well into his cups and feeling the effects of "liquid courage."
With the airplane still at the gate, the truculent passenger told a flight attendant that he had overheard Farooq's friend say: "Now I can control the aisle." The inebriated man's comment was apparently overheard by several other passengers, who no doubt were thinking of the alleged terrorist plot in London to bomb several U.S.-bound flights and who had been further primed for panic by the new round of invasive airport searches imposed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
The inebriated man's comment understandably made the passengers anxious. What would the typical American air traveler do if, just as he's settling into his seat, he finds out that there might be suicide terrorists aboard? Assuming that the option of simply leaving the plane is open, some reasonable people would make that choice. That course of action sometimes isn't possible under current airport security policies. In any case, at least some of the passengers on Farooq's flight chose another approach to deal with the perceived threat.
Reported the August 18 Winnipeg Free Press, "The flight attendant alerted the pilot that passengers had allegedly threatened to take over the plane, and the pilot decided to delay take-off and remove ... three [Arab] doctors from the plane for questioning." Adding verbal assault to humiliation, at some point the tipsy vigilante who apparently created the whole mess threatened to "pound" Farooq.
Hustled from the plane by the ground crew, Farooq, his seatmate, and a third friend were swarmed by Denver police, airport security, and Transportation Security Administration officials. Their identification was taken from them; they were ordered not to talk to one another and then separated from each other; and a call was quickly placed to the FBI to check out their background. After a brief period in custody, Farooq and his friends were released, but they had to pay for their overnight accommodations and return flight to home themselves.
In the meantime, the flight to Winnipeg departed on time, without Farooq and his friends--but with the impaired passenger and the others who had reportedly threatened to take control of the plane, which under post-9/11 statutes could be prosecuted as a terrorist offense.
Upon his return to Canada, Farooq demanded an apology from the airline. "The whole situation is just really frustrating," Farooq told the CBC news service. "It makes you uneasy, because you realize you have to essentially watch every single thing you say and do, and it's worse for people who are of color, who are identifiable as a minority."
But that's exactly the point, riposted Aaron Hanscom, a contributor to FrontPageMag, a bellicose neo-conservative cyber-journal. Reacting to Farooq's complaint, which he described as the equivalent of an "ACLU press release," Hanscom said that "an important fact escapes Farooq: In the midst of a war against Islamic fascists, you do have to watch what you say and do." While admonishing pious but peaceful Muslims to avoid praying, Hanscom didn't see fit to admonish drunken bullies not to threaten physical violence, or other passengers to avoid committing felonious offenses by threatening to seize control of a commercial aircraft from the flight crew.
Shortly after Farooq's experience, a similar humiliation was visited on British-born airline pilot Amar Ashraf, who was removed from a Continental flight from Manchester to Newark and interrogated by armed police on August 10--the day British authorities had announced that they had uncovered a plot to bomb several trans-Atlantic flights bound for the United States.
"I was a standby passenger and I'd been told I could travel at 9:00 that morning," the 28-year-old pilot told the Belfast Telegraph. "I'd gone through the same stringent security as every other passenger. I was patted down twice and my hand luggage was checked."
Ashraf, who is employed by one of Continental's partner airlines, had boarded the plane and settled into his seat after the plane had pushed back. He fell asleep during a lengthy delay as the plane waited for clearance to take off. The next thing he knew, he was being roused by a member of the flight crew, then hustled off the plane for interrogation. After missing his flight, Ashraf was forced to pay 800 [pounds sterling] (roughly $1,700) for another flight two days later, though his original flight had been free.
On August 20, a passenger mutiny aboard a Manchester-bound flight from Malaga, Spain, resulted in the removal of two "East Asian" (most likely Pakistani) men from the plane. "Some of the older children, who had seen the terror alert on television, were starting to mutter things like 'Those two look like they are bombers,'" recalled one passenger. "Some of the passengers were in tears."
The Purpose of Terror
Each of these cases might be described as an example of unfortunate bad timing on the part of the Muslim passengers, coupled with a sadly necessary "better safe than sorry" mind-set on the part of passengers, airline officials, and security personnel. Patrick Mercer, the homeland security spokesman for Britain's Conservative Party, offers a different view.
Referring to the melodrama in Malaga, Mercer described the panicked reaction of the passengers and the unnecessary expulsion of the passengers as a victory for terrorism: "These people on the flight have been terrorized into behaving irrationally. For those unfortunate two men to be victimized because of the color of their skin is just nonsense."
The purpose of terrorism, after all, is to terrorize people into such a state of widespread panic that "the government has no choice except to intensify repression," until the impositions on innocent people "make life unbearable," explained Brazilian Marxist Carlos Marighella, one of the most influential theorists of terrorism. Or, to borrow a phrase, terrorists act on the principle that "the action is in the reaction"; their violence is calculated to provoke social changes in the direction of authoritarian government.
Granted, at present those bearing the greatest burden of reactionary counterterrorist measures are peaceful Arab and Muslim young men (and others who resemble that profile). But all air travelers--not merely their luggage--are coming in for expanded scrutiny in both the United States and the West in general.
"Elite teams of security officers are to be trained to monitor passenger behavior at airports in a new attempt to combat terrorism," reported the London Times on August 20. "The 'behavior detection squads' will patrol terminals to monitor the gestures, conversations and facial expressions of passengers. One of their aims will be to spot those who may be concealing fear or anxiety. People determined to be acting suspiciously will be taken for questioning and prevented from flying if they fail to explain their actions." And may Heaven help the nervous flier whose anxieties are exacerbated by such scrutiny.
While the British government assembles "behavior detection squads," the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is experimenting with an Israeli-made biometric scanner called Cogito that would accomplish the same purpose.
"At airport security checkpoints in Knoxville, Tennessee this summer, scores of departing passengers were chosen to step behind a curtain, sit in a metallic oval booth and don headphones," reported the August 14 Wall Street Journal "With one hand inserted into a sensor that monitors physical responses, the travelers used the other hand to answer questions on a touch screen about their plans. A machine measured biometric responses--blood pressure, pulse and sweat levels--that then were analyzed by software. The idea was to ferret out U.S. officials who were carrying out carefully constructed but make-believe terrorist missions."
This Is the "New Normal"?
As in the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was detained at JFK and sent to Syria via "extraordinary rendition," there are other even less agreeable possibilities as well. Arar was tortured at the hands of Syrian interrogators and held in a damp, rat-infested cell little larger than a grave.
Released without explanation after nearly a year and returned to Canada, Arar was told only that a distant and very superficial acquaintance had been suspected of connections to al-Qaeda. Citing "national security" concerns, the Bush administration has neither explained why it seized Arar and delivered him into the hands of a terrorist state's secret police, nor apologized for doing so.
Difficult as it may seem to believe, millions of Americans might discover that their names have been placed on "watch lists"--and therefore flagged for the kind of scrutiny, if not necessarily the kind of treatment, Arar received--because federal air marshals were eager to fill a monthly quota. Denver's ABC affiliate KMGH reported in late July that federal air marshals are required to fill out at least one "surveillance detection report" of unusual passenger behavior a month, or else "there's no raise, no bonus, no awards, and no special assignments." "Innocent passengers are being entered into an international intelligence database as suspicious persons, acting in a suspicious manner on an aircraft ... and they did nothing wrong," one disgusted air marshal told KMGH.
Occasionally, a flight will contain an emotionally disturbed or mentally ill passenger whose behavior, while eccentric and unpleasant, isn't life-threatening. Previously, flight crews would simply try to isolate such people and minimize their impact on the rest of the passengers. In the current environment, however, their compulsive behavior often provokes potentially lethal reactions from security officials.
Such was the case with Rigoberto Alpizar, the U.S. citizen shot and killed by air marshals in Miami last December. Alpizar, a Christian missionary who reportedly suffered from severe bipolar disorder, suffered a panic attack after neglecting to take his medication. After dashing from the plane, he was surrounded by air marshals who ordered him to lie down on his belly, and then shot him when he tried to adjust his "fanny pack." The marshals claimed that Alpizar had threatened to set off a bomb, although not a single eyewitness to the tragedy supported that account.
On August 16 of this year, the erratic behavior of Catherine C. Mayo, a 59-year-old Vermont resident who also suffers from mental illness, provoked a mid-air crisis during a flight from London to Washington. Mayo prompted concerns among the flight crew by making bizarre comments about United Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on 9/11 (the trans-Atlantic flight was United 923), and then urinating on the deck of the aircraft when she was prevented from using a particular lavatory.
A flight attendant and two male passengers then held the middle-aged woman while plastic restraining cuffs were placed on her wrists. The flight, surrounded by an F-15 escort, was diverted to Boston, where it was greeted by a fleet of emergency vehicles.
Mayo's behavior grew out of a particularly fearsome episode of psychotic claustrophobia, not a terrorist plot. But the result of official overreaction was a plane full of terrorized passengers. "I noticed F-15s next to the plane," passenger Antony Nash recalled to the Associated Press. "I said, 'Oh my God.' And then we saw the emergency vehicles."
On August 23, less than a week after the drama of United Flight 923, an India-bound Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam made a mid-air U-turn surrounded by an F-16 escort after crew members and air marshals saw a group of 12 men, described as "East Indian," who were apparently trying to use cellphones shortly after takeoff, a federal offense--but hardly one worthy of F-16 intervention. On landing, the men were arrested and detained by security officials, who informed the press a few hours later that the incident did not appear "terrorism related," recounted the AP.
That incident, like those involving the Muslim passengers forced off planes by passenger revolts, and like the newly invasive screening procedures and secret government databases, can be taken as an illustration of what the Christian Science Monitor calls the "'new normal' in U.S. aviation" This is a euphemistic way of saying that five years after 9/11, terrorists are thus far succeeding in their efforts to psych our society into surrendering our freedoms, just as bin Laden predicted.