Abstract: "What would you do when a dozen people talking in an unknown language, having the racial profile as South Asian, all Muslims, talking and passing excitedly on cellphones in a plane, changing the seats repeatedly, and don't repeatedly listen to the flight attendent's orders when Air travel world over has been placed at heightened threat level? Discomfort a few people for few hours or put your entire plane to risk?"
1. What happened?
Twelve Indians aboard a Northwest flight headed to Mumbai triggered a terror alert that caused the plane to be turned back to the Amsterdam's Schipol airport and led to the temporary detention of those alleged suspects till the enforcement agencies couldn't prove any case against them. The Indian government acted swiftly and immediately provided consular access and also intervention through MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) that led to the affected passengers freed within 30 hours of the incident. The incident caused a bit of friction between the Indian and Dutch governments and the Indian media also had a field day with claims of racialism, imperialism and things like that, and the embarrassed Dutch government, were now at the receiving end and were at a loss of words.
2. Indian Media's Reaction
This issue involves racial, national & religious diversity, privacy and the respect for individual property, the right of countries to protect their sovereignty, the over powering enemy lying everywhere and most importantly the role of individuals in maintaining propriety and decency and a respect for the great running of such a complex system as international travel. This issue thus can't be over-simplified and requires great deliberation, but I'm sure, as I'm writing this the Indian media will be shouting at the top of their throat blasting the Dutch.
After the August 10th bomb plot 'defoiling' (when British agencies uncovered a huge plot involving the 'usual suspects' Muslim fundamentalists trying to blast a dozen planes in the US-UK sector) - air travel had become a messy one. Nations are at a high alert (for the first time, US kept its threat level in Red, the highest possible one), everything from shampoos to laptops to ipods to all handbaggage contents are all restricted, and a number of planes have been grounded, delayed and reversed on threat suspicion (alteast 4 this week in the US and Western Europe). In such a scenario, when intelligence and enforcement agencies are clueless against a mighty and invi(n)sible enemy, when a slightest movement of carelessness can put the life of hundreds of passengers at a grave danger, a group of highly animated and excited Muslims doing suspicious things - passing cellphones (when cellphone usage has been clearly banned in the airplanes) among dozen people, talking excitedly in an incomprehensible language (Urdu to make matters worse), having South Asian/Arab racial profile what would you do?
3. Law Enforcement Agencies' Dilemma
As most passengers felt, I believe that the enforcement agencies took the right decision and detained the suspects. After all, a combination of such things are not a day-to-day thing and should also enable people to act with more propriety when they move with other cultures. Values in one culture may not be the same in another. And race and religion matter a lot - whether you like it or not. How often do you see a While Female strapped with bombs blast a train, car or a plane, and how often do you see an Islamic Male doing the same thing? The numbers are stupendously different and thus people ought to be treated differently. A white female (or even a white male) cannot be treated in the same way as an Islamic male for security purposes, due to a wide range of probability difference. This is like a corridor in the house and a freeway comparison - you cannot cross the freeway in the sameway as you would cross a corridor, just because of the fact that the difference in the probability of threat.
When the infamous 7/7 blasts were happening in London, I was stopping over at London enroute Schipol (the airport where this harassment incident happened). I was pulled over by the security just before boarding the plane as my profile as an Asian matches the criminals in the incident. I was briefly questioned and even after finding a small knife (absent-mindedly left in the office bag by me) they handled the situation calmly and left without a major incident. I could either shout that they pulled me over and pressurized me just because I was an Asian and cry all kind of racial crap. But, the truth is they were doing an admirable job and a few minutes of different treatment and an hassle of extra check is worth the safety and security they ensure me during the travel.
4. What we could do to reduce our ordeal?
The best thing the people could do is avoid all kinds of suspicious talk and you have to be 5 times more careful if you are non-White and South-Asian, and 10 times more if you are a Muslim. You have to respect the probability of attack that you could bring and use newspapers to find out how many of your folks threaten the security worldwide. Basic tips to reduce hassle:
- Avoid any sentence that involves the use of banned words like bomb, guns, hijack, etc
- Try to talk in a common language of the land (most probably in English) or quietly in your local language, if you are amidst a large group of people of various races
- Don't carry any stuff that could even vaguely resemble a weapon (like water guns)
- Don't over-portray your religious or ethnic stuff. It is not illegal, but it raises the level of suspicion, after all most crimes in the world are committed by religious zealots
- Most importantly, listen and obey the officials in charge (airport authorities, flight attendents... depending on the location) ASAP.
- Know your rights and ask for expert help (like consulate access or lawyer consult) when in deep trouble
Many of these information can't be put by the agencies due to the imagined racial equality and other rights groups, but as we know that the reality is always different from the ideal, we need to be pretty careful about what we convey to others (spoken or otherwise) and to avoid the ordeal as these 12 folks, be civilized and have proper sense of decency and sensibility and know that air travel is not as simple as it looks like.