Terror in the skies? Or in the courts?

Is it conceivable that terrorists or their supporters might resort to litigation as one means of pursuing their goals? I don't know, but I have something I thought I should share.

James Lileks makes an excellent point while contemplating a scary recent example of inadequacies in airline security:

Our present enemy will nuke us as soon as they can, because it means heaven, period.
Via William J. Beck, III, who notes what he would have done:
Hmm. I have an idea.

I don't know about anyone else, but I would have simply walked straight up to one of these people and said, "Hi, there. I've been watching very closely, and I'm going to keep doing that until we're on the ground. In the meantime, you should tell me: What, exactly, are you guys up to?"

To that I say that we need more Americans like William Beck.

I don't talk about personal experiences as much as I should, but after reading the Terror in the Skies article, I feel obligated.

I was scheduled to fly from Philadelphia to San Francisco on September 12, 2001. On the seemingly dull morning of September 11, I turned on Howard Stern, and the first thing I heard was a very grim, "This is World War III!" I'm a seasoned Stern listener, and I knew from his tone of voice that he wasn't joking, so I turned on CNN.

I don't think I turned it off until the wee hours of the morning of September 12. Needless to say, my flight was canceled, and the next available flight to San Francisco was September 15, because the airports were closed. That flight was spooky, as the plane was only about one-third full, and people were visibly nervous. Sitting next to me was a huge, Samoan-looking man, and when we landed in San Francisco, he was met by an older woman (probably his mom), and both of them embraced, sobbing. (Real tears were flowing; things were that heavy.)

I stayed for a week, my return trip having been scheduled for September 22, 2001. On that day, the mood at the San Francisco airport was even scarier than it had been in Philadelphia. There'd been some sort of speculation in the newspapers about possible cosmic significance of the 9/22 date, and warnings were constantly broadcast about the need to "report anything of a suspicious nature."

And boy! What happened at the gate sure looked suspicious to me!

While I have no particular fear of people from the Mideast (I've traveled there a number of times, and enjoy getting lost in bazaars; my favorite city is Istanbul, which I've visited three times), there was a man at the counter who was young, bearded, and loudly insistent -- just to the point of anger, yet at the same time it seemed to me that he was going out of his way to cooly control his anger. He had his cell phone out, was demanding to be boarded, and it was clear that he lacked a boarding pass or a ticket, but he was very insistent and kept carrying on a three-way argument with the counter person and someone on his cell phone. His behavior was completely inappropriate considering the circumstances; and there had been news reports that some of the 9/11 terrorists had been thwarted on September 11 because they'd shrilly demanded boarding despite inadequate tickets. Anyway, you had to be there to understand how utterly bizarre it appeared; almost everyone in the airport was in a state of fear, and here was this guy trying to bully his way onto a flight!

I could see the United flight crew sitting there watching this man intently, and they appeared more than a little alarmed, so I figured no one needed to hear from me that this looked suspicious. Frankly, the whole thing reeked of suspicion; I've been flying for over forty years and I've never seen anything like it. It occurred to me that the man could either be a terrorist or crazy, so I watched him closely. After many minutes of demanding to board, I saw him turn and make eye contact with another Mideastern-looking man, following which the second man sat down in the boarding area for less than 30 seconds, then got up and quickly walked back towards the main terminal. It didn't appear that the United employees could see that, so I wrote them a note, and handed it to one of the women behind the counter. Here's a copy, which I still have because I was asked to testify about it later.


(The original of the above was submitted to the jury as evidence in Baig v. United Airlines, San Francisco Superior Court Number 400689.)

Next thing, the Mideastern man was given what appeared to be a boarding pass. At that point I decided to watch him during the entire flight, as I wanted be ready to tackle him if anything happened. But instead of sitting down with the passengers, he went and sat down -- facing the passengers! -- on the floor in front of the moving ramp in the concourse aisle in front of the gate. (Again, very strange behavior of the sort I have never seen in a lifetime of flying.)

Finally, the flight began boarding, and about the same time I got in line some security types in suits surrounded the man and started asking questions. I have to say, I was a bit relieved that I wasn't going to have to spend the flight watching him, but I had no way of knowing what he was really up to. As I boarded, the woman to whom I'd handed the note came up to me and reassured me that my note was not the reason the man had been kept off the plane, but that the entire flight crew had told the pilot that if that man was on the plane, they refused to fly.

I thought that was the end of it. What I didn't know until much later was that the man filed a discrimination lawsuit against United:

In a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court, M. Ahsan Baig, a U.S. resident of Asian descent, said he was singled out because of his race when a flight crew prevented him from boarding a Sept. 22 flight to Philadelphia.

The suit is one of the first of its kind in the nation.

Baig said he was told that a United crew member had seen him engage in "suspicious communications" with another passenger, prompting the captain to bar him from the flight. Baig hotly denied the charge, which he said a United representative could neither explain nor prove. Baig said that he had been on the phone to his wife and to a company straightening out a ticket mix-up just before he sat down in the waiting area.

A customer service manager repeatedly apologized to Baig for the incident and immediately got him on another flight.

But -- as I said -- he did not sit down in the waiting area! Not that I read anything about it until much later, but San Francisco columnist Deborah J. Saunders commented at time time about the incident, and later, so did did Rich Lowry:
9 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers drew special scrutiny before they boarded their flights, but none were actually questioned....

In late September, M. Ahsan Baig was kept off United Flight 288 from San Francisco to Philadelphia because the pilot didn't like the way he seemed to be furtively talking to another passenger in the waiting area. Baig, a California computer specialist who is from Pakistan, got on another flight 90 minutes later after apologies from a ticket agent. An hour-and-a-half delay, for many fliers, might be considered a good day at the airport. For Baig, it was the occasion for a civil-rights lawsuit.

I testified, and Baig's attorney did his level best to make me look like a bigot. I guess that didn't work, because that San Francisco jury came in with a verdict in favor of United. [If that's a hassle to open, the Google cache is here.]

I feel the need to post about this now because I think lawsuits like the one I went through tend to discourage what should be encouraged. Citizens should work cooperatively and use common sense.

As this shows (or at least so it appears), Big Brother can't be expected to protect us.

We have to protect ourselves -- hopefully with common sense, but with our lives if necessary.

Even if we get dragged into lawsuits!

UPDATE: As I get ready to post this, I see that plenty of excellent bloggers have weighed in on the Terror in the Skies article. (Steven Den Beste has some great advice, too!)

I sure hope that the Syrians weren't trolling for litigation.

UPDATE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post, and a warm welcome to all InstaPundit readers.

Patterico speculates about how litigation fears could be used as a terrorist weapon:

If I headed Al Qaeda, I would assign some Arab people to create incidents on airplanes (like this), get tossed off, and file some discrimination suits. Once those suits were settled, and the airlines appropriately cowed, I would be able to send my terrorists onto a plane en masse -- and if anyone tried to search them, I'd instruct them to cry "discrimination!"

But Osama doesn't need to do this, because the government is already doing this work for him. As the New York Times reported in April, since 9/11 our very own U.S. government has filed and settled numerous lawsuits against various airlines for alleged discrimination against "travelers believed to have been of Arab, Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent." As part of the settlement, the airlines (including American, United, and Continential) are required "to provide civil rights training over the next two years to its pilots and cabin crew." In Continental's case, the settlement provides that the training "must cost the company no less than $500,000."

Via Glenn Reynolds, who also quotes an email posing the question of whether the troublesome fliers are "decoys to distract attention from something more important."

The bottom line (as I see it) is that security measures are being compromised by politically correct ideologues unable to distinguish between interning Japanese Americans in concentration camps and delaying a suspicious passenger's flight. What will it take to change that?

posted by Eric on 07.16.04 at 06:11 PM


I am impatiently awaiting a news story that says Norman Mineta has been sent back to Silicon Valley and will spend the rest of his career presiding over "his" airport.

He Sen   ·  July 17, 2004 1:24 AM

Dear Eric:

You're a hero!

Here's a comment I wrote in Dean's World on this subject:

Mark Noonan wrote:
"There is a bit of insanity that 14 Syrians can even be allowed into the United States, let alone be allowed to get on a flight with one-way tickets."

True. Saudis, too, even more so. They must be barred from this country. There is no such thing as a Constitutional right to enter this country.

"I really think that American airlines need to learn from El Al; if they are suspicious they don't let you on. You get asked so many questions, over and over again."

That's exactly what we must do. One thing we must institute is _ideological profiling_ (a.k.a., "McCarthyism"). Compile a comprehensive list of known or suspected terrorist or pro-terrorist organizations. If anybody looks the least bit suspicious, for whatever reason, then tie him to a lie-detector machine and grill him mercilessly: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of..." any of those organizations. If he cannot honestly answer "No" to all such questions, he doesn't get on the plane.

By the way, setting a quota of how many people of a certain nationality can be interrogated is itself "racial profiling".

Political Correctness: America's time bomb?

Thanks Steven, but passing a note and testifying about it in court is not heroism. What Steven Den Beste advises would be (as were the actions of the passengers on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania.)

Eric Scheie   ·  July 17, 2004 12:26 PM

You still did more than most people would do. And it isn't physical courage alone that makes a man a hero. You had the moral courage to stand up against Political Correctness. To risk being called a "bigot" by everybody -- or to come out as a homosexual -- often takes as much courage as getting into a physical fight.

I agree with you that we need more Americans like William Beck. I read his blog all the time. A very interesting fellow.

I agree with you about Flight 93. I remember when we first heard that the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, and my brother and I wondered about it, and I speculated "maybe there was a fight aboard the plane". I turned out to be more right than I knew. I salute Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, and all the other heroes of that day. "Let's roll!"

That said, I repeat my point that that's not the only kind of courage.

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