Sunday, January 4, 2009

Fear in the Air

On New Year's Day, a few passengers sitting in an airplane on the tarmac wondered aloud, while awaiting takeoff, where the safest seats were on their airplane.

Sound familiar? That's one of my regular conversations when sitting down in my seat on an airplane. (The other is making David close his eyes and tell me where the two nearest exits are.)

Well, the passengers above were thrown off the plane, and AirTran refused to rebook them. The entire family was removed from the plane and left at the airport.

Are you horrified? Indignant? Looking for a pen to write letters to the airline and your local newspaper editor?

I forgot to mention: the "suspects" were Muslims. Most of the family members were of South Asian descent; the women donned headscarves and the men were bearded.

Does that change your reaction?

I hope not. It didn't change mine. In fact, it made me even angrier.

My family has been in the airline business since long before I was born. I have been on planes my entire life. My family members are the pilots, flight attendants and airline mechanics, so I trust the workers in that industry. No plane crash, hijacking or other unfortunate event, intentional or accidental, has deterred my use of airplanes. In fact, the only time I decided to change my travel plans and stay off planes was in late September 2001 — and not for the reason you would expect.

I wasn't afraid of terrorists. Heck, I figured they were long gone by then, leaving us to clutch our hearts, keen and be afraid of the airline industry — and making ridiculous procedures such as allowing only one ounce of shampoo in our carry-on bags and making us use plastic "sporks" (which could be used as weapons, but we weren't going to be as uncivilized as to require people to eat with their fingers).

I chose to return my ticket and skip my high school reunion because I was afraid of cowboys. Americans were frightened enough to mistake me for a northern Afghani when I wasn't frightened enough as a passenger.

In the years following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, America has worn its fear like a hairshirt and has taken liberties that it would denounce others for even considering. We have allowed our leadership to imprison people without due process, representation, or even a trial date. We have allowed spying and torture. We have allowed violations to our civil liberties because we are terribly, terribly afraid.

Frankly, I'm more afraid of our government than I am of the terrorists. Heck, I know terrorists are out to get me. The government, on the other hand, should be trying to protect what I hold dear, rather than take away something as silly as civil liberties.

We also have given ourselves and our government permission to be racial profilers. We have forgotten Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the rubble and anguish of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. We have forgotten Dr. Theodore John Kaczynski. We have forgotten about Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt. We have forgotten that Americans can be terrorists, too, no matter their religion or ethnicity.

We have forgotten that fear is a bigger threat than human beings from any country or any religion.

I am not so naïve as to believe that there are no Middle Eastern terrorists. I know some Muslims engage in terrorist activities against the United States and other countries, including their own. Some of them may even appear to be a traveling family with members as young as four years old. I understand exercising caution.

However, I refuse to be so afraid that my sense (I won't call it common) abandons me. If it is my undoing, then let it be so. I will not be pushed into bullying.

As Americans, as humans, we should expect no less from others.

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