By now pretty much everyone must have heard about the academic who was taken off a plane and questioned by authorities because the passenger seated next to him while the plane was waiting to be cleared for takeoff had alerted the authorities that he was behaving suspiciously, concentrating on writing strange symbols on a piece of paper and rebuffing her attempts at conversation as she tried to find out what he was up to. It did not help that he was youngish, swarthy looking, and bearded.
The plane returned to the gate and the man was questioned and it turned out that he was an Italian-American academic economist on his way to attend a conference, and the strange symbols were math equations that he was working on.
Much amusement has been directed at the passenger who reported him, with reports going out of the way to focus on the details of her appearance. She was described as a “blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag”, encouraging readers to view her as the stereotypical dumb blond who was such a total airhead that she could not tell the difference between the symbols used in mathematics and a foreign language. This story has spread rapidly across the globe and math major friends of mine from my undergraduate days in Sri Lanka have forwarded links to me from all over, chortling at yet another example of general American ignorance.
But I’d like to come to the woman’s defense, at least partially. For one thing, she was surreptitiously trying to read what a person seated next to her was writing and it is not easy to make out what someone is writing when you are sneaking glances from an oblique angle, even if they are writing in a language familiar to you. Furthermore, it is the US government and the Obama Administration that in 2011, during the tenure of Janet Napolitano as the head of the Department of Homeland Security, began the “If you see something, say something” program where people are actively encouraged to report to the authorities if they see anyone doing anything ‘suspicious’.
But what makes something suspicious? For most people that could mean anything they are personally unfamiliar with, with suspicion heightened if the person looks different from the norm. According to the DHS, people should do so if they see “someone’s behavior that doesn’t seem quite right” which is not particularly helpful. The woman presumably thought that a dark-complexioned man intently focused on writing something in an unfamiliar script did not ‘seem quite right’. She probably thought that she was doing exactly what the government expected of her and was being a good citizen. She is herself a victim of the paranoid mentality that has been created in this country.
This is not unusual. A Sri Lankan friend of mine said that he and a Bangladeshi friend of his were questioned by authorities when they were taking photos of a Metro station in Washington DC because a tourist from Iowa or Nebraska had reported them to security.
This is what happens when you encourage ordinary people to act like spies on the people around them. I am currently watching episodes of the British TV series titled Foyle’s War about a detective working in the south of England during World War II, and they show what can happen when ordinary people are encouraged to act like spies without any training. Anyone who was not stereotypically ‘English’ (and at that time this meant Jews and people of German and Italian descent) became automatically suspicious and could be reported to the authorities and subject to random harassment, arrest, and even violence.
But back to the case of the suspicious mathematics-using passenger, it is interesting that the way the airline resolved this particular issue was commendable. When they discovered that the man was not a threat, they let him back on the plane and offered the fearful passenger the option of rejoining that flight or going on another one and she accepted the latter. This is in contrast with previous episodes where the fearful passenger was allowed to take the same flight while the person wrongly accused of being a threat was taken off.
The Australian show The Chaser’s War on Everything had a sketch where they had someone take pictures of the Sydney Harbour bridge and a nuclear reactor when dressed as a typical American tourist and also as a stereotypical Arab, to see how authorities would react.