Do They Look Like Me?

You might have heard about the terror induced by 14 Syrian musicians on a Northwestern flight.

There is no doubt that something out of the ordinary happened on Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29. The plane was met at the airport by squads of federal agents and police responding to radio messages from the pilots about concerns that 14 Middle Eastern male passengers had spent the four-hour flight acting suspiciously.

But was the episode a dry run for a terrorist attack, as is now being widely suggested on the Internet and on talk radio, or an aborted terrorist attack? Or was it an innocent sequence of events that some passengers, overcome by anxiety and perhaps ethnic stereotyping, misinterpreted as a plot to blow up their plane?

It started with a 3,300-word story by Annie Jacobsen who was on the flight. Her narrative reads like one right out of a creative writing class. I agree with Donald Sensing that “Annie’s story is simply a scarily well-written shaggy-dog story.” Lots of bloggers have commented on the article, some skeptical while others feel scared or worse.

Aziz Poonawalla writes about the suspicious things he has done on an airplane. I fly quite frequently, but haven’t noticed anyone staring at me. However, I usually read a book at the gate and in the plane. I have been asked a couple of times where I am from after someone sitting next to me heard me speaking in Urdu to Amber on the cellphone. Depending on my mood and sunspots, I give different answers to that question.

This incident reminded me of the three medical students who were supposedly heard making terrorist plans in a restaurant in Georgia about two years ago.

The scare began when Eunice Stone said she overheard the three Muslim men at a Shoney’s restaurant Thursday morning making suspicious comments. At one point, Stone said the bearded man said if Americans “were sad on 9/11, wait until 9/13.”

Stone said she heard one of the men ask “Do you think we have enough to bring it down?” Another one of the men replied, “If we don’t have enough to bring it down, I have contacts and we can get enough to bring it down.”

“To me, that meant they were planning to blow up something,” she said.

She called authorities, who in turn issued the bulletin for authorities to be on the lookout for the vehicles. The men were pulled over at 1 a.m. Friday on Alligator Alley, after one of the cars allegedly went through a toll booth without paying.

In the end, it turned out the guys were innocent. It never was clear who was speaking the truth, the three Muslims or Ms. Stone, but PhotoDude had his preferences:

In the end, I, a 44 year old who’s lived in Georgia for 24 years, am left to believe people I don’t know: either a 44 year old woman from Georgia and her son, or these three men. Now, I don’t know Eunice Stone, but after 24 years in this state, I know Eunice Stone’s type.

[…]I’m very thankful the day ended with no one injured, and no one even in jail. But if I have to believe one version or another of the story, I think you know which one I choose.

I guess I can play that game as well. I also don’t know any of the people involved. But having lived in Georgia for almost 7 years and visited north Georgia quite a lot, I have heard stories about the small-town people there being nice and polite and sometimes suspicious of strangers, especially those who look different. This was definitely the case before September 2001 and I doubt it has changed now. On the other hand, I don’t know the Muslim medical students but two of them seem to be Pakistani-Americans and I know the type.

In the end, no one was injured, as PhotoDude noted, and no one was jailed, but the students lost their medical internship in Florida because the hospital received numerous threats (by anti-Muslim bigots, I assume).

Where am I going with this? Obviously, I am not blogging to criticize a 2-year-old post by PhotoDude. I was reminded of this somewhat “tribal” behavior that we are all guilty of at times because of an excellent blog post by Katherine. She starts out with the September 11 terrorist attacks.

I won’t describe where I was that day, or what I felt; you obviously remember where you were and what you felt. You saw the same images I saw. I would guess that even now, when there has been more time since an attack than you thought we would ever have again, you can imagine the worst case scenario. Perhaps in New York, perhaps in your own city. The fires and the frantic cell phone calls. The bewildered crowds fleeing the clouds of ash on foot. The full or eerily empty emergency rooms. You probably cannot come much closer than I can to understanding what it would really feel like to be trapped there, or to find out that your family member had vanished. But voluntarily or involuntarily, consciously or subconsciously, you have made the attempt. It is a plausible scenario.

The opposite extreme is not plausible. You cannot imagine the stray air strike that hits the apartment building. Not the relative or friend disappeared, not into the air but into some unknown prison. Not the deportation to a country you can barely remember. Not the questions you know you can never answer to their satisfaction, because you are innocent. Not the complete powerlessness of solitary confinement for—you have no idea when it will end, or if it will end. Certainly not the abuse or torture..

Her whole post is worth reading. Her point is that most of us cannot empathize with the victims of torture at Abu Ghraib or the immigrants who were abused in detention immediately after September 11 or the 14 Syrians who were most likely innocent musicians or the three medical students or Pakistani-American Ansar Mahmood.

If Mahmood had not decided to pose for a souvenir snapshot taken by a co-worker on a sparkling fall day in October 2001, he might still be in Hudson, dutifully spending money to his family in Pakistan. But the scenic setting that Mahmood chose for this photo was a water-treatment plant with the Catskill Mountains in the background. Amid the post-9/11 hysteria, employees of the plant alerted police that a possible terrorist was photographing this vulnerable target.

[…]Because he held a green card and the initial suspicions that he wanted to poison the water supply were so exaggerated, Mahmood won release within a week. But a search of his apartment led to the discovery that Mahmood had co-signed a lease for a Pakistani couple who were in the country illegally. In an interview with The New York Times, Mahmood later explained that he had not inquired about the couple’s immigration status. “They never ask me if I have a green card, and I cannot ask them either.”

Reflecting the get-tough attitudes of the months after 9/11, federal officials charged Mahmood with the felony offense of “harboring aliens.” On the advice of his court-appointed lawyer, Mahmood pleaded guilty in federal court in January 2002, accepting a lenient sentence of probation and time served.

Our story might have ended there with a sadder-but-wiser Mahmood learning that he should not be so eager to do favors for his fellow Pakistanis. But the revised 1996 immigration law eliminated discretion in a situation like Mahmood’s. As soon as he uttered the word “guilty,” Mahmood was subject to deportation. He was moved to the Batavia detention facility, as his appeals process worked its way through the courts.

After more than two years in prison, Mahmood lost his last legal gambit Tuesday [June 29, 2004].

A lot of photogrophers and other civil libertarians have talked about the restrictions put on photography in recent times, but most Americans won’t have the misfortune of being an immigrant from Pakistan and hence have all their life scrutinized because they took a photograph. In that scrutiny, law enforcement might find a crime, a technical violation of immigration law or even some blunders by immigration authorities which affected the immigrant’s status.

Or consider the case of Ian Spiers whose tale of harassment because of photography is detailed here.

There are lots of other examples, like Maher Arar, a Syrian Canadian who was sent to Syria by US authorities to be tortured and interrogated.

I am a political liberal and a secular Muslim. I detest the terrorists and thugs who kill in the name of my religion. I am dismayed at the lack of democracy and civil liberties in Pakistan. However, when I read about incidents like the ones described in this post, I remember that like Ansar, I am a Pakistani immigrant to the US; like the Syrians on the Northwestern flight, my native language is written in the Arabic scrript; and so on. For me, unfortunately, these things are not beyond imagination. I can easily think of myself in their shoes and the feeling I get is scary. At a rational level, I understand that the US is a better place in terms of liberty than most other countries and that the chances of anything bad happening to me or my family are quite minute. I just hope that we get over these “tribal” attitudes and get to the task at hand: getting rid of terorrism and spreading democracy and human rights around the world.

UPDATE: Unmedia has an update of the Jacobsen and Syrians in flight story.

UPDATE II: Time has an interview with a Federal Air Marshall on the plane.

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


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  3. Some people, mainly women, are haunted by superstions, suspicions and unfounded scares. Even somebody’s good gesture, sometimes, scares them. I have heard several people narrating cock and bull stories imposing on themselves a real state of fear. Sometimes, they pronounce imaginary (unreal) figures as having really seen by them. After the 9/11 and mass media attack of horror news, the conditions have aggravated.

  4. This is a troubling subject. And not because you brought my name in to it (though it’s troubling to read things you wrote two years ago that you would write differently today).

    Federal, state, and local authorities tell us to watch for and report “suspicious behavior.” Unfortunately, that’s an entirely subjective judgment, and we all have different “threat thresholds.” What one person sees as suspicious behavior that could be threatening, I might see as simply a guy hanging outside taking a cigarette break.

    And even if you feel it is suspicious, and decide to act on it, you have to wonder: “I hope I haven’t done something wrong … I hope I haven’t caused someone problems that really didn’t do anything.” (Eunice Stone)

    But Eunice and I can only look at it from our whitebread point of view. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be a Pakistani-American facing this kind of scrutiny. I can’t pretend I know how I’d react to it.

    But I have a hint. As you know, I get “harassed” (in the most minor sense) at times simply because I’m taking pictures somewhere. And alluding to what I said above, some people see me taking pictures of ducks in a lake … and find that suspicious! You just never know what silly things people will judge as “suspicious,” no matter what you look like.

    I don’t react to it well. I’m pretty assertive in response, because I know I’m doing nothing wrong. But as you pointedly note, “most Americans won’t have the misfortune of being an immigrant from Pakistan and hence have all their life scrutinized because they took a photograph.”

    And I’m ashamed to say I really have no response to that. Other than you’re right. And it’s wrong.

  5. Dad: I am not sure there’s any difference between men and women on this score. I think both freak out equally as Annie Jacobsen’s husband was also pretty scared, according to interviews.

    Reid: I cherry-picked the one thing in your posts on that topic that I had the most trouble with.

    You identify a few things one should always consider when getting suspicious that I would like to elaborate on:

    1. Always question yourself if you are doing the right thing.
    2. Imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.
    3. Think whether you would be suspicious eeven if the other person was not Middle Eastern looking.

    I have also noticed the issues people/law enforcement are having with photography nowadays.

    Fortunately, I haven’t had any problems taking photographs or traveling.

  6. Great post. These days, I’m reluctant and, yes, scared, to travel to the US, because Annie Jacobsen type stories abound — I can empathize with the Pakistani Med students, with the Syrian musicians, and I don’t want to be looked at with suspicion and mistrust (or locked up) for doing innocent things, going about my business.

    But ironically, my fear is just another type of Jacobsen-paranoia. It’s nuts to worry about this. I know several people who have been interviewed by the police/FBI with no ill consequence. And I know the bearded and religious can travel extensively without harrassment. And I’ve never had any trouble on my own US travels. The system works, fear is stupid.

    But still, for no good reason, I limit my travel to the US. It’s quite irrational. There you have it.

  7. Ikram: Interesting comparison between the two fears.

    stress: That was a dead give-away. As well as her focus on political correctness as a problem.

  8. I was reminded of this somewhat “tribal” behavior that we are all guilty of at times

    Tribalism is inescapable. That’s why Muslims across the world tend to support the Palestinians, and Jews across the world tend to support Israel.

    That’s why CAIR et. al. will denounce virtually any action taken against terrrorists, including the arrest of that Intel engineer on the West Coast. And it’s why nativist sentiments need a full spectrum mass-media effort to contain.

    Of course, I think Jacobsen is hysterical. And I think it was obviously a false alarm, and way too much is being made of it. I guess I come down somewhere in the middle: if there is going to be another major terrorist attack, it is probably going to be from Muslims, likely Arab Muslims. On the other hand, the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists.

    If M is the set of Muslisms and T the set of terrorists, P(M|T) is high, but P(T|M) is low. Pity most people don’t understand this.

  9. As a photographer i am downright reluctant 2 photograph these days. I own well over 100 cameras but they collect dust. Mostly I just collect these days. Its very unfortunate but that is the way it is. Until the dust settles…you wont see me out here creating my art!!

    I went home to Cleveland 4th of July weekend and took some pix after the 4th of July fireworks. Toward the end of the night…my cousin and I were standing outside this eatery…i was just trying to finish my roll of film. A waiter came up to us..asked us what were taking taking pix of…then told us to go up to their balcony and take some shots. That was kool but every other waiter and waitress asked us what we were taking pix of.
    I never felt anything like that in my life….here I am in my hometown and I m feeling like this!!

    Create Peace!

    – Ali

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