Paranoia or prudence? You decide.
July 17, 2002 7:02 AM   Subscribe

Paranoia or prudence? You decide. Seven people from an American Trans Air Chicago to New York flight were questioned by police, then released after a fellow passenger alerted flight attendants when she saw them "passing notes and changing seats". The plane was escorted to La Guardia by F-16's. Does this sound like safeguarding our freedom or are we getting rather creepy here?
posted by beth (37 comments total)
Turns out the people were members of a traveling entertainment troupe.

Talking about bombs or trying to light your shoe on fire is one thing, but when even simple communication and movement to be near other travelers in your party is construed to be dangerous (and expensive investigation ensues), how long can we afford such "vigilance"?

I'm worried that real terrorists (domestic and/or foreign) are going to be doing real damage while our elected officials and protectors (cops, etc) are busy chasing wild gooses.
posted by beth at 7:05 AM on July 17, 2002

Changing seats like crazy and passing notes is hardly standard airplane behavior.
posted by donkeyschlong at 7:08 AM on July 17, 2002

NYTimes story. The troupe is from India apparently. Isn't that the wrong kind of "dangerous/swarthy?" Tho' the note passing and jumping seats is a little worrisome. Maybe they're a mute acrobatic group, just putting on a show for the good people.

[My first comment BTW. Hello everyone.]
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:11 AM on July 17, 2002

Still, its kind of sad in a way that no one (apparently) just went up to them and said "Hey! What are you doing? Can I see those notes?". While I can understand (I guess) not wanting to upset a "possible terrorist", it seems like a lot of fuss and bother could have been avoided by simply asking them what they were doing.

Unless, of course, their behavior was some kind of bizarre performance art .....
posted by anastasiav at 7:11 AM on July 17, 2002

'They are part of a "traveling entertainment troupe," a Port Authority spokesman said.'

Damn suspicious. If they really were then surely they should have been travelling in a horse-drawn wagon covered in brightly striped tarp. With a small dog wearing a ruff yapping along with them. And maybe a dancing / talking bear...
posted by i_cola at 7:12 AM on July 17, 2002

I'm with i_cola. This is suspicious as hell.
posted by glenwood at 7:22 AM on July 17, 2002

Damn you, Cirque du Soleil!
posted by ColdChef at 7:23 AM on July 17, 2002

I have, when traveling in a large group of seven people, both passed notes (to my best friend who sat next to his girlfriend) and changed seats (to my other buddy after person next to me wanted to get closer to his other buddy). I must be a terrorist.
I can't even remember a flight that I have been on that didn't contain a "large group" traveling together spread out amongst the seats, who changed seats and passed around magazines to their travelling companions.
this is just silly.
posted by dabitch at 7:23 AM on July 17, 2002

What is a "traveling entertaiment troupe", anyway? I immediately think of people spinning plates on sticks. And let's face it, people spinning plates on sticks is really pretty scary.

"a fellow passenger alerted flight attendants" I wonder if it was the same person/people who asked about the sobriety test before getting booted off a plane. Please let it be.

Welcome to MetaFilter, PinkStainlessTail
posted by iconomy at 7:50 AM on July 17, 2002

Hmmm, the next few years are going to be very handy for historians, who get to watch the conversion of a democratic republic into a police state...

Screw CivIII, this is far more fun...
posted by jkaczor at 7:59 AM on July 17, 2002

Chef: They're French Canadian and they're in league with Disney. EEEEE-VUL!!

I agree with dabitch. [If only 'cos I love typing that...]
posted by i_cola at 8:04 AM on July 17, 2002

Yes, and if the other passengers had ignored them and acted like we all would have pre-9/11, and they turned out to be hijackers of some sort - we would be asking "Why didn't anybody do anything?!!"

Some things won't ever be the same.
posted by owillis at 8:07 AM on July 17, 2002

I think that passing notes is suspicious behavior for anyone over the age of 13.
posted by UncleFes at 8:13 AM on July 17, 2002

I'm as much a civil libertarian as just about anyone, but I don't see the problem here.

They were taken to the police HQ at the airport for questioning, but never arrested, according to the NYT article. This suggests to me that they voluntarily agreed to be questioned. If that's the case, what's the problem?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:19 AM on July 17, 2002

For future events of this nature the pilot should be authorized to read notes aloud to the whole plane. That I'll learn um! Some 7th grade justice is what this country needs to fight the evil terrorists.
posted by Bag Man at 8:20 AM on July 17, 2002

owillis's subject on Mastermind: The Bleedin' Obvious

posted by i_cola at 8:22 AM on July 17, 2002

From the Times article:
Since Sept. 11, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has scrambled fighters or diverted them from other missions more than 400 times to assist civilian aviation authorities, said Maj. Barry Venable, a spokesman.
So the escort (or use of fighters at least) is hardly an isolated occurrence. Weird, because I don't remember hearing about it. Am I just unobservant?

Yes, and if the other passengers had ignored them and acted like we all would have pre-9/11, and they turned out to be hijackers of some sort - we would be asking "Why didn't anybody do anything?!!"

Would we? I think 9/11 was a failure of intelligence, but living in constant suspicion in no better than living in constant fear. In the end, the hypothetical terrorists would be to blame, not the "anybody" who "didn't do anything". I think most people know that while the rules have changed we don't know what all the changes are yet. But maybe my head's in the sand.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:30 AM on July 17, 2002

donkeyschlong, the article says nothing about the passengers 'changing seats like crazy.'

I nominate the reporting passenger for the govt's new citizen spy program.
posted by fleener at 8:40 AM on July 17, 2002

Both stories just mention "changing seats and passing notes to each other". There's quite a leap from that to "changing seats like crazy" or even "jumping seats". Did two or three persons switch seats? Or were all seven running around doing the Chinese fire drill thing? If the actual activity was closer to the former, the "suspicious behavior" smells more like profiling to me.

Hi, PinkStainlessTail - user names are getting better and better all the time!

Yep, what fleener said.
posted by yhbc at 8:44 AM on July 17, 2002

The classic goals of terrorism have never found such fertile ground. Repressive anti-terrorist measures by the Government and the people giving up their humanity for security pit citizen against citizen and eventually the people against the government. It happened in Vietnam, it's happening in Israel and it will happen here.
posted by Mack Twain at 9:30 AM on July 17, 2002

here are some more details from an Indian site: All of them were part of a troupe that was in the United States for entertainment programs organised by some Indian associations...Members of the party were Verma (a somewhat well known actress) and her companions -- including her father, mother, younger sister, singer Narayanan and comedian Warrior. Sources said the trouble started when Warrior started miming people. The passenger misunderstood it to be some other language and became suspicious.
posted by rsinha at 9:31 AM on July 17, 2002

Ah, so it was the miming! Case closed. Everyone hates mimes.
posted by donkeyschlong at 9:36 AM on July 17, 2002

"the trouble started when Warrior started miming people"

Damn straight. Anyone starts miming me, on a plane or not, he's going to get the crap beat out of him with an olive loaf.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:40 AM on July 17, 2002

Passing notes is suspicious? Come on, hasn't anyone ever played a game like hangman or tic tac toe on a long flight? I have, and that entails a great deal of note-passing.

I was on a flight to England a few months after September 11th and I was seated next to an arabic man. He got a few weird looks as people boarded the plane, and throughout the flight, he sat quite still, said nothing (except maybe excuse me as he went by me), read nothing, and looked exceedingly uncomfortable. When a stewardess forgot to bring his brandy he opted not to make a fuss. I went back and reminded her for him... I felt sorry for an everyday, average Canadian citizen who was made to feel like he was guilty before innocent through no fault of his own.

Sure, these are crazy times and all, but it really hit home that if I happened to have a different skin colour I might be made to feel similarly frightened and accused.
posted by meowmix at 9:46 AM on July 17, 2002

m_c_d: Foccaccia?
posted by i_cola at 9:46 AM on July 17, 2002

meowmix - how did you know he was "arabic"? was he wearing a sign?
posted by donkeyschlong at 9:53 AM on July 17, 2002

how long can we afford such "vigilance"?
apparently for quite some time, given the new TIPS program, and of course this bs straight out of lalaland.
posted by quonsar at 10:02 AM on July 17, 2002

This stuff is really getting stranger and scarier than any movie I've ever seen. My own dang country... geez.

Seriously, I think we're going to get a smack in the face when Something Bad Happens because our resources are spread too thin going after stuff that just isn't dangerous.

We only have so many F-16's, after all.

And of course, the big thing that helps one discern true threat from innocuous behavior is good judgment, which is (as usual) in radically short supply.
posted by beth at 10:15 AM on July 17, 2002

[mad cackle of glee that no one mentioned my "gooses" mistake - has the statute of limitations on grammar fault and typo mockery passed yet in this thread?]
posted by beth at 10:27 AM on July 17, 2002

The story of Kamal Haasan sounds pretty close to racial profiling and state conduct that Mack Twain has spoken of. However, in the instant case, the members of the group were only held for a few hours and released. Sounds routine, even for a non-terrorist incident. Also, they seemed to have been singled out for bizarre conduct and not their skin color. I will say, that dispatching fighter jets seems a little extreme.

Mack Twain, you make an excellent point. I think that Bush is falling right to the hands of the "terrorists." For the time being I'm not too worried about the US being a "police state." Our traditions of civil liberties are very strong, much more so that Vietnam, Israel or many other countries. Further, I place faith in right-minded judges and judicial review to sort out what is just and what is overzealous. In fact, as we speak groups such as the ACLU have won victories for civil liberties and are constantly challenging newly enacted anti-terror laws. Further, the separation of powers in this country gives me hope that no one party in the government can do what ever it wants. However, I am not blind I can see what is going on around me all the time. I think that best course is let the intuitions designed to protect use, do just that.
posted by Bag Man at 10:32 AM on July 17, 2002

Prudence. This was a mime troupe behaving strangely, inviting attention. I'd hesitate to call the person who reported them 'overly suspicious'

To keep things in perspective, acorrding to the US Air Transport Assoc, the U.S. operates about 23,000 flights per day. I prefer to see this as an over-reported statistical anomaly than as anything indicative of a larger trend.

The deployment of fighter jets, however, is more of a post-9/11 marker than anything else in this story.
posted by vacapinta at 10:40 AM on July 17, 2002

Come on, hasn't anyone ever played a game like hangman or tic tac toe on a long flight?

Not since I was 13. I mean, I'm all for simple pleasures and all that, but a long flight's worth of tic tac toe? Goodly lord.

Hey, it might not be perfect, but they were obvious non-Americans acting squirrelly on a plane. Someone made a comment, they were pulled aside and questioned, found to be on the up-and-up, and sent on their squirrelly way. Right now, that's the way things go. I have full confidence that, in time, squirrelly onboard behavior will once again become the norm, but in the meantime, if you act squirrelly (or even if you don't - I was pulled aside and questioned in Atlanta for running down the concourse to catch my plane - single man, beard, one bag, one-way ticket, sweaty and anxious looking? "Right over here, sir..."), you could very well get asked a question or two.
posted by UncleFes at 10:41 AM on July 17, 2002


I don't think so. Could be, though. Look for yourself. 1, 2, 3.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:09 AM on July 17, 2002

obvious non-Americans

How so? Was it because they had no flags? Or their refusal to say the pledge of allegiance? Of course I am a Canadian so I can't really speak as to whether or not people can be obviously American or non-American. All I know is that I cannot tell whether somebody is Canadian or not without seeing their passport.

I do receive considerable grief when crossing the border into the U.S. at Port Huron. It seems that I am obviously Arabic to the Michigan border guards despite being a Western European mongrel with French, English, Irish and German ancestry. People who are pro-profiling are very rarely people who resemble the groups being targeted. I have repeatedly chosen not to visit the U.S. simply because border crossings have gone from merely unpleasant to intolerable for me since last Sept. I can't imagine what it is like for someone that doesn't have a North American passport.

It's clear that the mimes have already won.
posted by srboisvert at 11:34 AM on July 17, 2002

How so? Was it because they had no flags? Or their refusal to say the pledge of allegiance?

Forgive me, I should have said "Most likely not fitting the physical and sartorial description typically associated with American citizens by other American citizens, who make up the majority of passengers on domestic flights between American cities."

I fit the profile of the profilers (white, male, business suit, medium-crabby) but they have no problem picking my dumb ass out of the terminal and checking my id and bags. And I imagine that the Canadian border is being is a little stricter with those who look what is typically considered Arabic (to wit: olive to dark brown skin tone without being obviously racially African, semitic features) in light of the fact that more than one potential terrorist has been stopped at that same border.

But I believe that, current environment considered, you have made the right choice - if crossing the border for a non-terrorist of Canadian citizenship with no criminal record is "intolerable," then best to remain in Canada until the conditions ease, which they certainly will over time.
posted by UncleFes at 11:55 AM on July 17, 2002

Sorry, I'm with the smart Vegas money on this one: hijacking planes to hit the World Trade Center was a one-time score. We will never see similar happen again. It will be a new, unexpected horror which was permitted because our attention was unecessarily diverted to the task of closing the barn door.
posted by TurkeyMustard at 8:39 PM on July 17, 2002

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