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July 16, 2004

A New Etiquette « GWOT »

By now you've heard the story about the scarily-weird Syrians.

In case you haven't, you can read a definitive round-up here by Michelle Malkin:


Bill of the INDC Journal had a similar eerie experience.

Some commentary by the Ace of Spades.

And what the heck:
Did James Woods see a dress rehearsal?

Finished with all that? Good. Here's the thing: As a nation, there has been a general feeling against racial profiling. If you assume that racial profiling arises from the idea that the only way a black man could have enough money to buy a BMW is if he deals drugs, then, yes: racial profiling is racism.

But if you feel that racial profiling is nothing more than looking at what population is most likely to commit a specific crime, and then look for the most common characteristics of that population, then maybe it isn't racism as much as a good idea. After all, there's no point in wasting time doing audits on a small-town Tastee Freeze in New Mexico if you want to capture Wall Street embezzlers, right? You consider who is mostly likely to commit a crime, and you look at him first....but by no means only.

But our legal system is predicated on the idea that someone is innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty. Or is it? If so, how did this happen, and how could it ever have happened? See, if the guy had been holding a gun, it would have been okay, because the officer has the right to defend himself...sort of. BIG gray area, depending on the situaiton, circumstances, politically-active groups in charge.

The point is, it's easy to pass laws against racial profiling if the result of being less successful in arresting drug dealers merely means $1.2 billion dollars of drugs reach the streets instead of just the $1.1 billion dollars if we'd used racial profiling to catch that extra guy.

To put it another way, racial profiling is a tool that can be effective in some circumstances. The higher the cost of being wrong, the more likely you will use any tool at hand, even one that might well be racist.

Is it any surprise that we have rules and procedures designed to prevent racial profiling in our transportation system? We do, after all, have a Democrat heading up the Department of Transportation in Mineta. Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin, among many others, have decried the searching of 80-year-old black women and 12-year-old asian boys and many others when the clearest threat is from Middle Eastern terrorists, and that makes sense.

Except that it's not always easy to tell who is from the Middle East, because there are Middle Easterners with white skin, sandy hair, red hair...there are "whites" who are dark-skinned and look Arabic. Some Scandinavians have black hair, and when combined with a good tan. Heck, before my full-German (Wendish) dad's hair turned silver, he could have passed for a Middle-Eastern man.

And take all these examples linked above. What, exactly, would you do to the suspicious people that wouldn't be in violation of the 4th, 5th, or 14th Amendment to the US Constitution?

The only reason this question is being asked at all is because the cost is higher than ever before. The terrorists have shown their ingenuity in developing plans to kill large groups of people. Let there be no doubt: if they could acquire a nuclear device, they would not hesitate to detonate it in the most dense population center they could.

We have Constitutional rights. We have the Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. How many of the 3000 people killed on 9/11 are able to pursue those rights...? Oh, yeah: none.

But you can't throw out the US Constitution just to save a life or two, right? Well, no... If we tear up the Constitutional guarantees of rights for a little safety, we deserve neither the rights nor the safety, right? (to paraphrase Ben Franklin). Well, it just ain't that simple. It isn't that simple at all anymore.

A new society dawned in the United States on 9/11. I think no one realized the extent it would affect the future. Many people assume things have gone back to normal, mostly...but they haven't. If we relax in the wrong place at the wrong time, we will have several more thousand dead, if not tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands. The cost of guaranteeing freedom from hassle and interference went through the roof in September of 2001, make no mistake. Maybe we dodged a bullet on the flight described by Annie Jacobson, maybe not. Even if not, we have certainly dodged other bullets. In the weeks and months after 9/11, several individuals were able to sneak all sorts of weapons and banned items on board. Apparently the searchers have found most of the smart alec insulting notes, though.

(Q: What did you find, Sergeant? A: We found this spoon, sir!)

Somethings gotta change. Some things will change.

First, I think we must start to accept restrictions on certain behaviors. It is already illegal to merely joke about having a bomb. So we threw free speech into the gutter, huh? Well, we seem to be doing fine in all other areas of free speech.

So, can we say "suspicious" behavior needs to be considered sufficient grounds for an Air Marshal to detain a suspect? That sounds good, except that all it takes then is one person hired or designated to be excessively suspicious, and then the Air Marshal has his hands full and cannot do anything to stop the rest of the bad guys from assembling their weapons in the bathroom.

Therefore, second, I think we need to designate more legal power aircrew to order people to sit down.

In any case, since it is a matter of life and death for not only the people on the aircraft but also the people at a possible impact point, people will have to expect "rude" and abrupt treatment by air travel professionals. We used to teach our children to do whatever a police officer says, immediately and respectfully. We need to teach our children to do the same with airline attendents.

Third, I think our society will grow to adjust to the situation. Veteran air travelers have already adjusted to the extra security checks, I think that as a society, we can and should begin to expect that we must defend ourselves on flights. Todd Beemer and the rest of the "Let's Roll" crew showed us that it is possible to affect the outcome and save lives. If we expect the aircrew to do something about it, the aircrew won't be able to do their jobs of attempting to ensure our comfort and safety.

But that bumps us right up against another problem: individual autonomy and Principle of The Rudest Person Wins. Rude people get away with so much because no one else wants to confront them...the fact that the person cares so little about societal norms that they are already being rude leaves the polite individual slightly afraid that even speaking up against rude behavior might earn a verbal barrage, or even a poke in the eye. Again, the cost of getting involved had usually been considered too high, and most people will suffer rudeness in silence rather than risk making a scene or escalating the situation into confrontation. But it's worse than a poke in the eye now. Now if you don't say anything, it might end up with your death as the plane plows into a skyscraper. And so, we have to develop the courage to confront those individuals. Ask them what they are doing. Ask them to explain themselves. Ask them to stop moving around and to stay in their seat. Expect them to be rude and abusive to try to intimidate you into silence, and that's when the fellow passengers have to stand up and defend the person challenging the suspicious behavior.

I think society will change. We don't know how to handle this. ...yet. But we will. Americans are flexible, and within another few years, flying etiquette will probably end up developing to the point where we can police ourselves to a great extent.*

One last thought: why didn't the pilot do anything?**

*There's not much you can do against a bomb, though. You really don't assemble bombs, since something the size of a shaving kit is enough to cause a plane to experience explosive decompression that will kill everyone on board and crash the plane.

**Think about it: why not make standard operating procedure be if anything suspicious is going on, the pilot warns of turbulence and tells everyone to strap in. Thanks to weather doppler radars, the pilots often know where the turbulence is and avoid it; instead, they could seek it out. If even that doesn't get these jerks to sit down, the pilot can "create" an unstable situation by sending the plane on a "weightlessness" roller coaster path. That'll make 'em sit down. Sure, it's expensive in fuel, perhaps, but cheaper than losing all the passengers on board.

Posted by Nathan at 03:47 PM | Comments (6)

Eh, to pick a nit, the rights to life, liberty and the PoH are not Constitutional rights.

Posted by: Christopher Cross at July 16, 2004 04:00 PM

My bad, and good point.
Can I say that since it is in a primary source document, "The Declaration of Independence" that it carries similar weight?

Posted by: Nathan at July 16, 2004 06:44 PM

Well isn't that flexibility a bit on the relative side of moral thinking?

Posted by: Chuck rightmire at July 16, 2004 07:57 PM

You'll have to explain more fully. I think I understand, but I want to make sure before I actually respond...

Posted by: nathan at July 16, 2004 08:43 PM

I completely agree with all that you write here (and have written about many of the same perspectives over time, elsewhere).

The ONE THING that is glaring at me as I write these comments this morning, however, is that, from all the articles I've read (linked here, and some from elsewhere), people who observed "possible hijackers" or other passengers who caused them concern, all describe that they were alerted because of someone else's irratic or "hyper" (nervous) behavior, who also was of Middle Eastern racial type.

If I recall correctly, the Atta guy and crew from 09/11 were photographed passing through security clearance areas in their boarding airports, all calm and collected, looking quite the picture of composure and dreadful dedication to their day.

Middle Eastern, yes, but also not seen to be "nervous" or otherwise. Obviously, I wasn't present (thank God) on any of those flights that day, but from the media coverage and that replayed security camera film footage of Atta alone, there wasn't an indication of "nervousness" or hyperactivity coming from among the terrorists, and even their voices when replayed on the airline tapes later were calm, reassuring, actually quite "normal" all the while they were already engaged in their horrible acts.

SO, again, it's not so much a case of encouraging society to be observant and suspicious about hyper and nervous Middle Eastern males between the ages of 20 and 35, or whatever that formula is, but, from what I read about the standards and processes in place by Israel, for instance, it's about applying enough pressure before boarding to all passengers and seeing who is who and what is what and finding the terrorist personality, focusing on the terrorist and not so much focusing on the weapons.

Being concerned about a person of Middle Eastern racial type with a long item wrapped in a cloth (as the woman describes in the WWW article) after boarding isn't the answer. There NEEDS TO BE someone PRIOR TO BOARDING who analyses that person, regardless of what they are carrying or not carrying.

Posted by: -S- at July 16, 2004 11:47 PM

About "rights" and "profiling," people who criticize in fear about "the loss of rights" lose sight of the most important "right" of all: to live or not.

There are no "rights" when you're dead, or, at least, it's in God's hands at that point and human "rights" set in process by any legislation isn't going to help or harm or any way intervene at that point.

The entire arguement that "racial profiling" is involved is one that reminds me of people complaining about "the sky" when there's a tornado on the horizon. Yes, the process involves the sky, but what is actually significant is that big swirling thing coming right at ya'.

Posted by: -S- at July 16, 2004 11:52 PM
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