Snakes on, Arabs off the Plane

On August 12, Iraqi peace activist Raed Jarrar was at JFK airport when he was forced to remove a T-shirt he was wearing that said We will not be silent in Arabic and English. JetBlue and airport security officials informed Jarrar that he would not be permitted to board his flight home to California unless he complied. In an astonishing exchange, one officer said to him, "You can't wear a T-shirt with Arabic script and come to an airport. It is like wearing a T-shirt that reads 'I am a robber' and going to a bank."

The offending T-shirt was designed in 2005 by New York-based Artists Against War. The slogan derives from the White Rose dissident group that opposed Nazi rule in Germany. The T-shirts have been seen widely in the United States at various events and until the incident at JFK, were not considered a "threat to public safety."

As the media started dissecting the incident, one of the things that came to mind is the manner in which popular culture has been signaling our nation's level of hyperparanoia. Take "Snakes On a Plane," the uber-hyped, internet-propelled, buzz film of 2006. Long before the film even opened, internet discussion of the film was at a fever pitch and the studio capitalized by adding scenes in response. The most-quoted dialogue from the script actually originated as an online parody of Samuel Jackson's pistol-whipping persona.

"Enough is enough! I have had it with these mutha****in' snakes on this mutha****in' plane!"

When you leave the theater, think of the film as a metaphor for the expansive paranoia that has gripped air travel. If it's not snakes on your screen, it's real Arabs or Muslims biting you as you sit waiting for takeoff. Overwhelmed by the fear that the dark-skinned fellow in Seat 3B is not just looking for a snack as he rifles through his bag, passengers have become the new enforcers on our flights.

Ultimately, this is not a security conversation -- it is about enabling individuals to act out their fantasies as "terrorist spotters." Every person is now a potential Action Hero, ready to pounce on evildoers. Even after everyone makes their way through security checks, passengers are often indulged when they spot "suspicious" behavior, kick up a royal fuss and boot someone off the plane.

When you begin targeting behavior and facial tics, are passengers passive actors in all this, or do they trigger behavior modification and self-censorship? This is partially debated by Bernard Harcourt in his forthcoming book "Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing and Punishing in an Actuarial Age."

Suspicious behavior has expanded to include not smiling (the Syrian musician case), going to the bathroom repeatedly (the two Indian men detained soon after 9/11), changing seats and using cell phones (Amsterdam-Bombay flight scare), wearing heavy clothing (Malaga-Manchester flight, shades of Jean Charles de Menezes who was wearing a heavy coat when British police officers shot and killed him), wearing hijab (JFK detentions), wearing an Arabic T-shirt (JetBlue's fracas with Raed Jarrar), and speaking "Arabic" (Malaga-Manchester again). In the last instance, mob rule forced two men off a Manchester flight. The men in question were Asian and were most likely speaking Urdu.

One of my innocent pleasures are horror films that give that balls-to-the-wall fear buzz. Take the first installment in the Final Destinational franchise; the protagonist, Alex Browning, sees a vision of an airline crash and freaks out, thereby saving the lives of a group of passengers who get off the plane.

Image credit: Shahed Amanullah

For anyone who already suffers from fear of flying, the accelerating nervousness displayed in the pivotal scene is true to life:
ALEX BROWNING: "I saw it. Like, I don't know I just saw it. I saw it on the runway, I saw it take off. I saw out my window. I saw the ground. And -- and the cabin starts to shake, right? And the left side blows up and the whole plane just explodes! And it was so real, just how everything happens, you know?"
Browning's revelation is not taken well by the flight attendants, who threaten to remove him from the aircraft.

To which Alex replies, bravura style: "F*** you! I'll remove myself!"

And he storms off the plane, along with some lucky souls who are scared by his outburst. Moments later, the plane is in the air, and even fewer moments afterwards, it explodes. Death does not take a holiday, and eventually all the survivors get their comeuppance in maximal gory fashion.

If Alex Browning were of a darker hue and had a Muslim-sounding name, the sum result of his freak-out could very well be deep incarceration. The Center for Constitutional Rights might still be suing for his release today. These are the realities of air travel in this eco-system of fear.

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