On the same day the country gathered together to recognize the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)launched two F-16 jets to tail a Frontier Airlines flight from Denver after the crew reported “suspicious activity on board.” That “activity”? The existence of three dark-skinned passengers.Two Indian men and one self-described “half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife” from Ohio — all unknown to each other — made the mistake of boarding a plane on Sept. 11, 2011.
After the crew reported that two people had spent “an extraordinarily long time” in the bathroom, the jets escorted the plane to its destination in Detroit, Michigan. Then, according to reports and the “half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife” Shoshana Hebshi, a SWAT team of about 10 police boarded the plane with machine guns and three dogs, approached Hebshi and the men’s aisle, handcuffed them, and escorted them off the plane:
Before I knew it, about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen–bigger than what the guards carry at French train stations.
My last tweet: Majorly armed cops coming aboard
Someone shouted for us to place our hands on the seats in front of us, heads down. The cops ran down the aisle, stopped at my row and yelled at the three of us to get up. “Can I bring my phone?” I asked, of course. What a cliffhanger for my Twitter followers! No, one of the cops said, grabbing my arm a little harder than I would have liked. He slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.
After interrogating and strip-searching the three passengers, the FBI determined hours later that “there was no real threat,” excusing the wildly disproportionate response by stating, “The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not.” When Hebshi asked her interrogator what sparked the concern, he replied “that someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity.” Hebshi noted that the “activity” was two Indian men “going to the bathroom in succession.”
Hebshi’s situation is an all-too-common example from one of 9/11′s salient legacies: racial and ethnic profiling. Multiple minorities — Muslim or not — have been banned from flights or subjected to humiliating searches solely because of their appearance. Indeed, U.S. officials even spurred diplomatic tension with India last year for detaining its U.N. envoy and demanding to physically check his turban.
Living through this era of Islamophobia, Hebshi wondered whether the mere fact that three minorities “who didn’t know each other” but were dark-skinned will always be “suspicion enough.”