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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Thursday, March 22, 2007

How do you decide?

From time to time on this blog we've discussed profiling - most often where it concerns law enforcement and how they do their jobs.

Truth is, by human nature alone, it is impossible not to profile other people. We all do it.

There are times it is done by ignorant people. And those times are when profiling becomes a matter of bad discrimination - "bad," because there is such a thing as appropriate discrimination (like when choosing to date the guy with a job, as opposed to the jobless loser who lives with his parents, or someone comes to your upscale restaurant in flip-flops and you deny them a table, for example).

I've been stopped by cops before for: driving while black, driving too nice a car, driving in the wrong neighborhood. Probably don't need to tell you this, but that was all bad discrimination.

Now, had there been a recent crime committed in the area by a guy fitting my description who was driving a vehicle that looked like mine, then those cops would have been dumb not to stop me. But they were dumb, because they stopped me for one reason only - not behavior, not bad driving, not a matching suspect description, but just because I was black.

So used in conjunction with good sense - and in the case of crime-fighting, with the law - some profiling is just fine.

However, I fear that those of us who worry too much about hurting folks' feelings have made "profiling" interchangeable with "exercising caution."

The two are not synonymous, which finally, finally brings me to my point: I've been reading, watching, and listening to reports over the past week or so that the six Muslim Imams who were removed from a flight in Minneapolis last fall after passengers and crew reported they were behaving suspiciously have filed suit against the airline for a variety of prejudices.

Several blogs have reported that the Imams also named some of the passengers who pointed them out in the suit, but I haven't found proof of that.

Regardless, in this post 9/11 era, I just don't see where the passengers or the crew went wrong.

If press reports have been accurate, passengers and crew have said the Imams requested seat-belt extenders, though none of them were apparently overweight. They said at least a few of the Imams left their assigned seats and repositioned themselves in other vacant seats - not to sit together as a group - in other sections of the plane. And several passengers said they overheard the Imams making anti-U.S. government comments.

It's a shame 9/11 has made folks paranoid. And these guys may have been perfectly innocent - returning home to Arizona, and just being themselves. But I gotta tell you, had I been on that plane and seen and heard the same alleged things I would have told the crew too.

In fact, I would have been pounding on the captain's door, yelling "Open this door, stop this plane, and remove these men!" Of course, that probably would have gotten me arrested too, but you get my point.

I love everybody. If I don't like you, your appearance won't have anything to do with it, unless you're sloppy and unkempt without the excuses of poverty and homelessness. And the fact that I feel the need to give that disclaimer should tell you how deep the paranoia goes. No one wants to fall back anymore on "Sorry for the inconvenience, but better safe than sorry." We can't just come out and say "You - your behavior and appearance worries me. Sorry." And that's too bad.

At my last newspaper, I was sent after 9/11 along with a photographer to NYC to track down a former Milwaukee firefighter, whom we had learned was the only survivor of his battalion.

I remember the tension on the flight there. People were nervous. Conversation was nervous. Even laughter was nervous. Passengers were giving each other those furtive looks. And, yes, there were a few passengers, who, based on their garb, were Muslim.

We felt sheepish and laughed about this later, but after the photographer and I observed one older Muslim woman walk past us several times before the flight took off - apparently going to the bathroom and back - we agreed that if she started strolling again as the plane made it's descent into the NY area he would hit her high and I would hit her low.

Yes, it was stupid. But I ain't afraid to admit that we were nervous as hell. And I'd just as soon tackle an old woman than hold back for fear of offending someone.

I want to meet Jesus one day, but I wasn't trying to meet him under those circumstances 'cause I was too embarrassed to risk being wrong.

The flight went smoothly. Our trip, though sad, was great.

But where do we draw the line? And how did we get to this point where "caution" has become synonymous with "discrimination," and "prejudice?"

The Imams say in their suit that ignorance and lack of understanding of Islam prompted what they say was an uncalled for act of discrimination against them.

But I don't think it's that complicated. I guarantee you no one on that plane was thinking anything about the religion of Islam when they reached out to the crew.

You know what they were thinking? We're scared.



  • I sat by such a nice dark skinned muslim man a few years ago while on my way to Seattle. His daughter was living close to mine in London and we discussed our fears for our children and our own safety. He was as concerned as I was, or maybe more so because he had to be worried about being considered both predator and prey. This man worked his whole life for peace, education, and understanding between people. We both wanted to live in a world without discrimination, but we sadly agreed that we do not, and probably never will. Being a reasonable man, he knew that if people are pulled out of the line for a search, he would be the more likely canidate of the two of us, even if he was wearing a $500 suit.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 2:35 PM  

  • When I see white guys in overalls flying planes into buildings, I'll profile them. When I see black men with gold teeth hijacking planes, I'll profile them.

    And if I'm renting U-hauls and some white guy comes in with 2 tons of fertilizer and ammonia, I'm calling the cops, too. Let the police figure out he's got a chicken farm somewhere and isn't on his way to blow up a building.

    By Blogger SWF41, at 3:19 PM  

  • WoW, you used the magic word: "reasonable." It is sad that this is where we are today, but I look at it this way: If I'm wrong about you and you didn't intend to blow up my plane, I'll apologize later for being in error. And hopefully you'll understand what stoked my fear.

    SWF41, colorful analogies. I don't want to offend anyone, but I'd rather you be offended and all of us - including you - remain safe than to ignore my apprehensions and find out too late.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 3:25 PM  

  • I don't see the Imams point, really - b/c to me, no matter WHAT color or faith or ethnicity, it's the BEHAVIOR they exhibited that was disturbing. Seat belt extenders? Musical plane seats?

    My husband got reprimanded mightily for saying, "Excuse me," and touching a flight attendant lightly on the shoulder. She was about to back over him in the aisle with her drink cart, while he was returning from the bathroom. It's "better safe than sorry" in today's world.

    I have to fly to DC this weekend - so you can bet I'll be VERY aware of my surroundings, and wouldn't hesitate to call someone out, if I thought it might save lives.

    By Blogger Tiggerlane, at 3:38 PM  

  • I think that the burden of understanding the ins and outs of each religion does not lay with the public in general. Do those men know the particulars of the religion of the Catholic sitting next to them on the plane? Probably not. It all comes down to behavior, and it sounds like their behavior was suspect.

    Also, what does the extended seatbelt signify? I am not familiar with that, and I don't particularly want to google it...

    By Blogger fiwa, at 4:14 PM  

  • The flying imams are quite a different than regular old profiling.

    The imams were making a point to be offensive, conspicuous and disputatious. They knew exactly what was going to happen and they invited it.

    By Blogger Hammer, at 4:24 PM  

  • Yeah, put out an APB.

    We've got a well-groomed black male, mid-thirties with a slight paunch, seen fleeing the scene in a late-model Subura, "I love square dancing" bumper sticker, Florida tags.

    The suspect is unarmed but considered mildly threatening.

    By Blogger Matt, at 4:27 PM  

  • You were just being "vigilant."

    By Blogger Matt, at 4:34 PM  

  • I once saw the "Flying Imams" perform at CBGB in the City. But that was before the world changed on 9/11. Now I'm sure they couldn't get booked anywhere. And rightly so.

    By Blogger Verticus S. Erectus, at 8:00 PM  

  • I wonder (and I ask this question of myself as much as anyone) if the Imams had been of another ethnicity and exhibited the same behaviour, would the passengers have been as nervous? Or would they have been more likely to think the family was just strange? I'm ashamed to say that I'm not sure I would have had the same level of nervousness.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 8:48 PM  

  • I'm amused that the airlines and TSA continue to try and convince people that their searches are "random." Once, I saw them eyeing up an older foreign man, well dressed-he seemed to be a business traveller. He didn't seem surprised to be "randomly" selected-he said he always got pulled.

    By Blogger Claudia, at 9:38 PM  

  • Okay, I know I'm pretty cynical. But, I have a hard time believing any of the news reports on just about any of these stories anymore. So many of them have been full of nothing but rumors and flat out lies.

    Like the "they were making anti-American comments". That's a pretty general, all-emcompasing charge that a lot of news organizations LOVE to grab onto and repeat consistently without ever actually internviewing any of the people on the plane.

    I believe that right after this incident FOX News and others made the claims that one of the Imams had "ties" to "terrorist organizations". Another favorite line. Oh really? He did, did he? So, why isn't he at GITMO? Why isn't he on the "no fly list"?

    I mean, they put Ted Kennedy and a bunch of 2 year old kids on that list. Surely they would put an Imam with ties to terrorist organizations on the no fly list?

    Look, I don't know what happened on that plane. They might have caused a real scene. They also might have just been flying while Muslim too.

    As for this line:

    "You know what they were thinking? We're scared."

    Well, that's exaclty where the terrorists AND the Bush Admin want us.

    Sorry so long.

    By Blogger Jay, at 10:54 PM  

  • Call it what you will, it's discrimination.

    Which, according to, means:

    "treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit."

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 6:35 AM  

  • And what exactly is an "anti-American comment?" You turn on any talk radio station, any news talk TV show and someone is there saying something like "Bush is bad" and "This country is going to hell" and "The Gov't is infringing."

    Anti-American comments are made all over the place by WASP-y people and no one thinks they are terrorists.

    So, yeah. I think their appearance (along with the other behaviors) played a part as to why people were scared. I DON'T think that if some middle aged, over-weight white guys would have garnered a second glance.

    By Blogger Kevin, at 10:24 AM  

  • Tiggerlane, I feel ya. Sounds like healthy caution to me.

    Fiwa, I agree it's not a religious issue. It's simply a matter of folks being scared of people they don't know. As for the seatbelt extenders, people who know more than me have suggested they could have been used to tie up/subdue others. How much of that is legit, and how much was born of spy/action movies I don't know.

    Hammer, if you believe what's been reported it really does sound as if someone was trying to stoke a confrontation.

    Sorry, Matt, but the incidents I describe were years ago, when I was single, living back home in Virginia, and driving nicer - or at least snazzier - vehicles than my Subaru.

    And with the old lady on the plane to NYC after 9/11, I'm the first to admit my 'tude was less about vigilance - though that's how my righteous indignation described it then - and more about my fear. Maybe it was irrational fear, maybe not.

    Verticus, are you yankin' my chain, or was there really a group called the Flying Imams?

    Claudia, good question. Fair question. Here's the thing. It's not just a look. It's a sound. That's how our brains work. So if the 9/11 terrorists had been a dozen white guys with thick Irish accents, and so on and so forth, I think, yes, people getting on planes these days and hearing and seeing what seems to be suspicious behavior out of such a group may still have been scared.

    Whew! Jay, this struck a nerve. Let's say that your suspicion is right and that the news reports - not the blog reports and the random rumor, but the "news" reports - on this incident were all wrong. So take the situation as a hypothetical. You're telling me that you are so comfortable with everyone around you and different behaviors that you can't picture yourself getting nervous about any of this under any circumstances? If that's the case, I admire you even more. 'Cause like I said, while bad discrimination is, well, bad, I'm sorry I still have to check myself to prevent it sometimes. And I believe the way the world is these days has left an extremely thin line between discrimination and caution. I know the terrorists want us scared. I don't know where the Bush adminstration wants us. But if we are scared, why does that make Avg. Joe and Avg. Jane bad? Fear is a natural reaction scary incidents. Why doesn't that fear just make the terrorists bad for instigating it?

    Sarc, I know the definition. But thanks for supplying it. My point though - and maybe I just didn't make it well - was that passengers didn't seem to automatically freak out just over what these guys looked like. It seems that passengers didn't freak out until these guys allegedly started acting funny. So one could argue that it was largely their behavior and that their appearance wouldn't have raised any red flags at all, if not for that behavior.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:35 AM  

  • Kevin, I forgot to address the anti-American comment thing, or at least respond to it. I guess of all the alleged foibles, I do feel that accusation was bogus. Everyone I know speaks out against the government at some point. It might just be at tax time, or during election season. But we all have something negative to say about Uncle Sam. So that one doesn't hold much water. Who knows exactly what the passengers heard though. It may have been "Death to America," or "Let's stick it to the government," or "I hate the government, let's die!" or "Mmmm, mmm, looks like a good morning for dying in order to show the govt. how we feel!" I'm being facetious, but really, who knows what those passengers believe they heard?

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:39 AM  

  • James:

    "You're telling me that you are so comfortable with everyone around you and different behaviors that you can't picture yourself getting nervous about any of this under any circumstances?"

    Of course not. Anybody who ever makes a claim like that is lying. I was simply saying that the news reports of Muslims scaring people on a plane don't scare me.

    When I'm sitting at a stop light in a questionable area of town and I see a gang of teenagers heading towards me do I instinctively check to see if my doors are locked? Of course I do. Do I even look to see if where traffic is so I can plan an escape route? Sometimes.

    Nobodies perfect. We all overreact sometimes. We all get nervous and let our imaginations get the better of us sometimes.

    My only point was that a lot of the news media ... probably fueled by blogs and talk radio ... took this incident and tried to fan the flames. They are preying on our fears and those deep down feelings that we all wish we didn't have and sometimes feel guilty about.

    By Blogger Jay, at 11:23 AM  

  • I always get double checked at airport security.

    I don't fit any profile, except maybe the one at the beginning of every alfred hitchcock show. ha ha ha.

    It might be my nuts/bolts/rod holding my leg together.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 8:44 PM  

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