One thing is for sure: You will be detained and arrested if you pull a stunt like the one Lawrence Johnson pulled on a flight heading in to LAX last week. Witnesses say Johnson tried opening a rear emergency exit door and yelled, “I have a bomb” when other passengers tried to stop him.
But what if you go to the airport wearing a T-shirt with non-English words printed on it? Or board an airplane while discussing the safety merits of particular seats? As we’ve learned from two recent news stories, what happens next might depend on people’s stereotypes about your complexion. And that raises questions about whether airlines, government agencies and other passengers need a refresher course on constitutional rights and plain old common sense.
Last December, JetBlue Airways and two TSA officers agreed to pay Iraqi-born, U.S. resident Raed Jarrar $240,000 to settle charges that they discriminated against him in 2006 based on his ethnicity and the Arabic writing on his T-shirt.
Jarrar had been told that he couldn’t board his JetBlue flight at New York’s JFK airport unless he changed his T-shirt or covered it up. The shirt read “We Will Not Be Silent” in English and Arabic and one TSA agent told Jarrar that wearing that shirt in an airport was tantamount to entering a bank wearing a shirt that said “I am a robber.”
JetBlue agents bought Jarrar a T-shirt with a slogan they thought would be less alarming to other customers. But before allowing him on the plane, JetBlue agents moved Jarrar’s seat assignment from the front of the plane to the back.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Jarrar’s behalf and calls the recent settlement a “victory for constitutional rights.” JetBlue Airways, however, “continues to deny, outright, every critical aspect of Mr. Jarrar’s version of the events.”
And a TSA statement states the agency “does not condone profiling nor tolerate discrimination in any way shape or form,” but avoids direct comment on the Jarrar case by pointing out that the suit names two TSA employees, not the TSA itself.
Still, Aden Fine, the senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s First Amendment Working Group says “the size of the settlement [$240,000] should make it clear that what the TSA and JetBlue did to Mr. Jarrar was wrong. Airlines should know better, and federal government officials should really know better. We’re hopeful that TSA officials and all airlines will think long and hard before they do something like this again.”
Lesson learned? Nope.
Unfortunately, an incident on New Year’s Day makes it clear that what happened to Raed Jarrar was not an isolated event.
Family removed from plane
On Jan. 1, AirTran Airways pulled nine Muslim passengers — all but one American-born — off a flight heading from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., to Orlando International Airport in Florida. The problem? Some passengers panicked when they heard Atif Irfan and another passenger discussing the location of the safest seats on the plane. Before they knew it, the pilot was informed, the plane was emptied and everyone was re-screened. Although the FBI determined that Irfan and the eight others in his group posed no threat, AirTran representatives refused to rebook the Muslim travelers on another flight later that day. Instead, an FBI agent helped the group book flights on another carrier.
AirTran later apologized for incident, refunded all the fares, and sent out a press release calling the whole thing just a big misunderstanding.
Racist or realist? What was really going on?
“AirTran was not being racist, just a realist,” says attorney Larry Klayman, founder and former chairman of the conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, and author of “Fatal Neglect: The U.S. Government's Failure to Protect American Citizens from Terrorism.” He believes that ethnic profiling is necessary and that “we cannot be so sensitive that security comes second to reality. The hard fact is that a Muslim family that starts talking about where to sit on an airplane is a potential risk, more than a Caucasian grandmother.”
Jen’nan Read strongly disagrees. Read, an associate professor at Duke University and an expert on Arab and Muslim American integration, says she wasn’t totally surprised that the New Year's Day incident at Reagan National occurred but “was a bit shocked” that it went as far as it did with the passengers not being allowed to re-board after being cleared by the FBI.
Given that just before Christmas a Continental Airlines jet had skidded off the runway in Denver, a lot of travelers were no doubt worried and wondering out loud about the safest seats on an airplane. “But the fact that these people were Muslim made them the targets of stereotyping, regardless of them being American.”
‘Here we go again’
Jarrar, the U.S. citizen who got that $240,000 settlement for being discriminated against at an airport for his T-shirt, was also shocked when he heard about the New Year’s Day AirTran incident. “I said, ‘Oh my god. Here we go again.’” Jarrar currently works for the American Friends Service committee, a Quaker group devoted to peace and social justice, and says he’s been trying to get in touch with the nine Muslim passengers at the center of the AirTran story. Although he received some death threats after speaking out about what happened to him, Jarrar says he also received a lot of support and even some apologies from strangers. “So I want this family to know that what happened to them is not a coincidence and that they are not alone.”
Beyond urging the rest of us not to jump to conclusions about fellow passengers based on their skin color, clothing or presumed religious affiliation, Duke University’s Read has this straightforward advice: “As a society we know better than to discriminate against people based on gender, race or age. It’s time for more tolerance for other American citizens who have the misfortune of sharing a religious affiliation with a small group of crazed individuals.”
I wonder what would happen if someone squeezed that advice onto a T-shirt and wore that to the airport.
Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.