‘Mile High’ Story not so Funny After All

Posted on September 13, 2011


Media outlets outdid themselves on Sunday, reporting a comedy of errors as the Department of Homeland Security rushed F-16s to accompany a Denver plane bound for Detroit. As the lede emerged, it was all for nought–just a couple trying to join the Mile High Club in the plane’s bathroom on the wrong day. While all media didn’t use the “mile high” euphemism, they did repeat the claim that two to three passengers had holed up in the lavatory together. What superficially sounds like a reasonable suspicion, with a comic relief punchline, hides something much different as has become clear since.

There were never multiple passengers in the lavatory on the plane. In fact, the lavatory was used in a completely normal way by two passengers in the same row. What triggered the suspicion? Two of the passengers were South Asian, though strangers. And Shoshana Hebshi seated in between them, also a stranger and American citizen, was of Arab descent. That’s it. As I joked last year, we’re not far from the point where we criminalize the appearance of non-white people with semitic or South Asian features in public on “9-11 Day”. But its no joke. This kind of hysterical and paranoid racial profiling has serious consequences.

Several years ago, when Star Jones, a young woman of color studying at MIT caused a minor meltdown while wearing a DIY t-shirt with a circuit board at the Chicago airport, the head of security grimly observed, “She’s lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue.” He wasn’t exaggerating. A year earlier, Jean Charles de Menezes was shot in the head in a London subway car because undercover police officers had mistaken him for an Ethiopian terror suspect.

Such profiling has obvious impact and danger for those who all too often fall prey to it. But what people often forget is the indelible impression it leaves on the thousands of people subjected to it every year. Here are some excerpts from  Hebshi‘s blog–whose father is of Saudi origin–who wrote about the incident:

The Indian man who had sat next to me on the plane was already in the backseat. I turned to him, shocked, and asked him if he knew what was going on. I asked him if he knew the other man that had been in our row, and he said he had just met him. I said, it’s because of what we look like. They’re doing this because of what we look like. And I couldn’t believe that I was being arrested and taken away. […]

I stared at the yellow walls and listened to a few officers talk about the overtime they were racking up, and I decided that I hated country music. I hated speedboats and shitty beer in coozies and fat bellies and rednecks. I thought about Abu Ghraib and the horror to which those prisoners were exposed. I thought about my dad and his prescience […] I thought about my kids, and what would have happened if they had been there when I got taken away. I contemplated never flying again. I thought about the incredible waste of taxpayer dollars in conducting an operation like this. I wondered what my rights were, if I had any at all. Mostly, I could not believe I was sitting in some jail cell in some cold, undisclosed building surrounded by “the authorities.”

All such stories have similar arcs. Despite the fact that few if any of these security officers have ever actually encountered a real security threat in an airport or plane, the incident becomes immediately a cause to dehumanize the suspect. Hebshi is physically pulled out of her seat, her questions ignored. “It was like I was invisible”, she writes.

After an interrogation and detention that lasted several hours, Hebshi was moved to write this:

All I know, is I probably won’t be flying again on Sept. 11.

In the aftermath of my events on Sept. 11, 2011, I feel violated, humiliated and sure that I was taken from the plane simply because of my appearance. Though I never left my seat, spoke to anyone on the flight or tinkered with any “suspicious” device, I was forced into a situation where I was stripped of my freedom and liberty that so many of my fellow Americans purport are the foundations of this country and should be protected at any cost […]This country has operated for the last 10 years through fear. We’ve been a country at war and going bankrupt for much of this time. […]

Like tens of thousands of Americans profiled merely because of their ethnic background, the antagonism towards American institutions and the loss of confidence in them is palpable and permanent. This was one of the most ignored legacies of the post-911 world. Perhaps it’s been overlooked because it is only the continuation of the US’s history of subjecting racial minorities to brutality and injustice simply to make sure that “real” Americans are kept “safe”. While doing so, they only serve to further fragment an already crumbling society. But given the crimes against the world that society seems inexorably drawn to, that’s perhaps for the best.


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