Turbulence in the air

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

On December 26, 2009 I flew to Sri Lanka to attend a college reunion. It was the day after the ‘underwear bomber’ incident that took place on the transatlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. I was glad to go out of the country since I knew that the media here would be saturated with the usual hysterical “Oh my god, we’re all going to die unless we give up to the government all our rights and liberties and privacy so that they can protect us from all danger!” that always follows these attempts by suicidal persons to inflict harm on others.

Although such bomb attempts do not scare me from flying despite the absurd hysteria they arouse, I fully expected to deal with a lot of security. But there was nothing unusual and I breezed through security with just the routine checks.

But the second leg of my flight from Washington (Dulles) to London (Heathrow) was far from routine. About 45 minutes before we were due to land in London, I was trying to take a nap when suddenly I heard shouting and opened my eyes to see two men running up the two aisles from the back to the plane towards the center where there was the galley and bathrooms. I also heard the sounds of fighting in the narrow passage between the bathrooms with someone seemingly being beaten and their head pounded against the wall or floor. The two men whom I had seen running took positions in each aisle where they could see up and down, whipped out badges that were on chains around their necks, and shouted out that they were police and that everyone should immediately take their seats and remain seated thereafter. They stayed in this position while the sounds of fighting continued, accompanied by shouts of “Stop beating your head against the wall!” and “Stop beating me!” and I realized that two other air marshalls were the ones subduing someone in the passage between the bathrooms.

Eventually, after about fifteen minutes, the sounds of fighting subsided but the two air marshalls in the aisles stayed in their positions and kept surveying everyone in the plane all through the landing. We were told to remain in our seats until the British police could arrive and take charge of things. This took about 20 minutes and after that we were allowed to leave the plane, though those who had been eyewitnesses to what had happened near the bathrooms were asked to remain. No one told us the cause of fracas. I later checked the web for information and found nothing so I figure that the disturbance was caused by a drunk or psychotic or otherwise unruly passenger, not someone with any intent to destroy the plane.

Even though this occurred the day after the Christmas bombing attempt, I did not feel any panic or fear during the entire episode, nor did I detect such feelings in the other passengers that I could see. People seemed to be simply curious about what was going on, craning their necks to get a better view. In fact, one passenger allowed his little daughter to stand in her seat so that she could get a better look. I think that this sense of calm was due to the fact that the air marshalls seemed to quickly take control of things and also because the flight attendants, even while there were sounds of fighting, created an air of normalcy by going about doing routine pre-landing tasks such as collecting cups and so on.

On my return trip to the US on January 11, there did not seem to be any extra security either, even at London as I was boarding for the US. The security people at Heathrow airport did not require everyone to take off their shoes but looked at them first before making the request. My shoes were given the green light and could be kept on but people with boots were asked to remove them. The only extra measure was at the boarding gate. I was singled out of the line and asked to check in my carry-on bag because new size restrictions for carry-on baggage had apparently been imposed on January 1 because of the underwear bomber incident and my bag that had passed muster all these days was now suddenly deemed to be too large.

Although the request was made courteously and I complied without making any protest, I was a bit suspicious because other passengers with similar sized bags were allowed to keep them and I was wondering whether my skin color had caused me to be singled out as a potentially dangerous person. After arriving in the US at Washington and passing through customs and immigration, I was told that I could once again take my bag as a carry-on on my last leg to Cleveland, suggesting that this new size rule was being applied somewhat inconsistently.

On the flight from London to the Washington, they also announced that there was another new rule, that when the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign comes on, everyone must return to their seats immediately, with no exceptions even for those going to the bathroom or already in it. For this seven-hour flight, they put on the sign a full hour before landing, which is the time when a lot of people use the facilities. This caused some friction between a few passengers and the flight attendants, who knocked on the door of the bathroom and asked the people inside to return to their seats. The reason for this new rule seems to be that the underwear bomber tried to detonate his explosives during the last half-hour of this flight, but since that seemed to be an arbitrary decision on his part, the logic of this new rule escapes me, since another bomber could merely make his move earlier.

On my return to the US, I discovered that the usual hysteria over the underwear bomber had indeed occurred, with people demanding even more security measures such as full body scanners, profiling, and the like.

I wonder when people are going to say that they have had enough. I myself have long ago reconciled myself to the fact that there will always be people crazy enough to try and find ways to kill others and that there is no way to be 100% secure even if we give up all our rights and liberties and freedoms and privacy. Systems and people are fallible and there will always be some cracks in the security system that can be exploited. So I am willing to take the risk of loss of life in a terrorist attack in return for living a life that is free from highly intrusive government security. This is why I think I was so unperturbed by the fight on the earlier flight. After all, the risk from dying in a terrorist attack is surely less than the risk of dying from other causes that I face every day such as car crashes or common criminals or building collapses. I don’t obsess over those risks so why should I obsess over dying in a plane crash?

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on liberty vs. security

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Ideal or No Deal
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  1. Dashi Singham says

    I just read about these professors in operations research who are studying different methods of setting up airline security. Profiling and screening are two separate ways of handling passengers, and they are hoping to come up with more sensitive ways to provide extra attention to passengers who may pose a higher risk.


  2. Ross says

    I got out of the habit of reading your blog when you were on vacation and only just remembered that I need to pay attention again. Your post today makes a point that has often occurred to me over the years since 9/11. When I spent time in DC in 1999, it was vastly different from when I spent time there in 2006. High walls, steel car gates, security checkpoints, etc. had been added in the meantime. My primary thought was, “The terrorists have won.” If our lives are so dominated by the worry that someone might attack, and our landscape is transformed into an armed camp, then the terrorists have succeeded in their goal of creating terror — making us afraid. There must be a better way to address this.

  3. says


    While there may well be better ways to address this, the sad fact is that having a terrorized populace does not serve only the terrorists purposes, it serves the purpose of the government as well, so there is no interest in finding solutions.

    All the things that the government has been able to get away with that have only marginal connections to terror were possible only because a terrified public gave away their rights in return for a dubious spurious sense of security.

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