On flying while Arab

Patrick Smith, who writes "Ask the Pilot" for Salon, spent the second half of his column today talking about how some American travelers are a bit too uptight when it comes to reacting to people of a particular ethnicity on airplanes.

He calls them irrational and foolish. I call them racist. And part of the reason it's a problem is because passengers get their irrational feelings reinforced by those in power. Profiling adds to the problem, because it makes the ignorant feel justified in suspecting a group of people based on nothing more than their physical appearance.

Aaron Magruder of "The Boondocks" mocked this attitude really well in his animated series when he had one his more ignorant characters refer to Arabs as "people of terrorist descent," but I think this scene from "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" really illustrates just how stupid this fear is, and what it's based on.

What I'd really like to see happen next time a passenger makes this sort of stupid charge against another group of passengers is to have the flight attendants back up the group being harassed--tell the people complaining that they can always take a later flight, and that the people at the gate will be glad to rebook them (with a fee if the tickets call for it, naturally), but that if the people being harassed for "flying while Muslim" have cleared security, then they have every right to stay on the plane.

I doubt that will ever happen, because flight attendants are subject to the same worries and doubts that our government, using the power of the TSA, has ingrained in a lot of people, which is that we should be more suspicious of brown people with unfamiliar names and accents who want to get on planes. They reinforce those irrational fears every time they pull aside a Hussein or Shireen for no other apparent reason than their names and submit them to a "random" security check. We may be irrational, but we're not stupid--we know there's nothing random about it--so it's as the government is telling us that we really do have something to fear from people who look like this and have these names.

Fight attendants can be tough with passengers when they need to. On my last trip, there was a guy about three rows ahead, seated on an aisle, who started whining to the flight attendant about wanting to switch seats--he did this right after discovering that the middle seat was going to be occupied by a heavier guy--and the flight attendant said, quietly but forcefully, that there were no other seats, and that if he wanted to switch planes, they could help him at the gate. They can do the same with Arab passengers (assuming that they're Arab to begin with--Arab, in this context, is a synonym for "different looking," since there are lots of people outside the Arabian Peninsula with dark skin and Arabic names, and most Americans don't know the difference); simply tell "concerned" passengers that they can take a later flight if they wish, because frankly, there's not much to be worried about.

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