Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Flying While Brown

This blog post by Shoshana Hebshi tells the story of an infuriating, astonishing incident on Sunday. Thank you to Allan for pointing it out to me via the MSNBC coverage.

The crew of a Frontier Airlines flight on Sunday was "seeing ghosts" because of the anniversary of 9/11 and called out what they considered suspicious behavior.

Via the AP: The crew reported that two people were spending 'an extraordinarily long time' in a bathroom," Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuck said. ... Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously," [FBI Detroit spokeswoman Sandra] Berchtold said. "The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not." What are the limits to this contention? What are the protections against overreach or disingenuous misuse of power?

NORAD scrambles two F-16 jets to shadow the flight until it lands safely in Detroit. Leaving that weird occurrence aside, once the plane lands, they are stuck waiting on the tarmac. "Before I knew it," Hebshi writes, "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."

These quasi-militarized cops handcuff and detain Hebshi and two Indian men who were in her row, and they're none too nice about it, grabbing her arm "a little harder than I would have liked."

She's arrested. She's held in a stark and accusatory setting. She is strip searched albeit by a female officer. At this point the chronology of jaw-dropping events levels off a bit. When she gets mad and insists that of course she speaks English, she's a U.S. citizen, the officer does not escalate or blow up. Then she is released. I'm not concentrating on the two men basically because she wrote an articulate first-person account but their experience is important too. Hebshi concludes with remarkable poise and magnanimity.

I believe in national security, but I also believe in peace and justice. I believe in tolerance, acceptance and trying–as hard as it sometimes may be–not to judge a person by the color of their skin or the way they dress. I admit to have fallen to the traps of convention and have made judgments about people that are unfounded. We live in a complicated world that, to me, seems to have reached a breaking point. The real test will be if we decide to break free from our fears and hatred and truly try to be good people who practice compassion–even toward those who hate.

The One Percent Doctrine

I am horrified by this story. And I can see how conservatives and centrists will hop the lilypads to say that the authorities were just doing their jobs, erring on the side of caution to try to prevent even a single black swan event with disproportionate killing power. The U.S. has not stopped persecuting people who look like they might be Middle Eastern or Muslim because apparently in the short term and in the moment, law enforcement considers it plausible that terrorists tend to correlate with a crude racial profile and do not want to risk being wrong.

I have objections to this contention. Start with the well-meaning protector. It is a horrible, horrible job, to be the person whose job it is to try to determine who can be sacrificed for a greater good. And the people who happen to bring up Shirley Jackson's black dot may have something to say about it. Like "Hell no," for instance?

I want to say it's illegal but I don't know the facts. I assume we will be hearing a lot more about the experiences of Hebshi and the two men. It may well be that it is illegal and the FBI did it anyway and are prepared to deal with the after-the-fact consequences of suits and settlements. Democracy Now reported in January 2009: "JetBlue Airways and two Transportation Security Authority officials have paid out $240,000 to the Iraqi-born blogger Raed Jarrar, who sued after he was stopped from boarding a JetBlue flight at JFK Airport because he was wearing a t-shirt that said 'We will not be silent' in both Arabic and English."

I also have an objection on the basis of ineffectiveness. It is so utterly narrow. What happens as the terrorist profile changes? Will we drop racial profiling? Will we continue profiling brown and Middle Eastern people even if evidence comes in that the correlation no longer holds? (I doubt that law enforcement will want to relinquish the "new tool" of being given the nod to profile.) Or will we profile a wider and wider dragnet?

A Swiss Cheese of Exception Zones

I'm concerned about the use of 9/11 to set up a special zone. I've written this in a post about airports. Major airports are a small police state with boundaries in space. Major anniversaries of 9/11 ending in zero are a small police state with boundaries in time. I do not see any limits coming from Holder, Petraeus or whoever else, that the exception-making will not roll on wider and wider. It can happen in the aftermath of an attack but doesn't have to only happen there. If all of the state's opinion-influencing tools are unleashed - like Powell at the U.N. and Cheney on the Sunday shows - on bringing cruise liners or strong-encrypted IRC channels or public libraries under a microscope of attention and on serving notice that it's going to be a new exception zone and the loss of rights is going to be the rule and not the exception in that zone, they would probably get their way. And when you do that enough times, eventually there is more exceptional space than regular space.

Where are the bright red lines between Shoshana Hebshi and Anwar al-Awlaki?

As Shoshana Hebshi is sitting astonished in her cell, she is thinking "about Abu Ghraib and the horror to which those prisoners were exposed." The bizarre horrors of rendition, black sites, Abu Ghraib, targeted killings and Guantanamo are just echoes as she tells her story, but they are not far away. It seems to me there are things we have not done to U.S. citizens within the U.S. yet but we have already declared the entire world to be the battlefield. Bush, Cheney and Yoo set it into motion and Obama continued it and gave it bipartisan consensus.

Kings and dictators assert power over the life and death of every citizen, and we haven't done that yet. But the erosion continues when we (a) deem certain U.S. citizens preemptively killable so long as they fall into certain niches, like being overtly militant and espousing violence against the U.S. and (b) lower the criteria for the mistreatment of U.S. citizens inside of the U.S. as long as they fall into certain niches, like flying while brown while it's 9/11.

I suppose the next notch on the slippery slope will be the targeted killing of an Al-Qaeda militant who was someone they considered killable anyhow, and the U.S. is where he happened to be when they got their chance. Perhaps we are going to hear a lot more about the Supreme Court case Ex parte Quirin, which upheld the idea that German saboteurs "behind enemy lines" in the U.S. were subject to military jurisdiction rather than U.S. constitutional. I'm a little over my head in talking about this interesting case but I can maybe see the argument for killing someone who is incontrovertibly a combatant. Maybe not. I don't know the Constitutional arguments. However, the problem for me is that past assertions of who's a militant have been full of holes. According to Glenn Greenwald, "72% of Guantanamo detainees who finally were able to obtain just minimal due process ... have been found by federal judges to be wrongfully detained. These are people who are part of what the U.S. Government continues to insist are "the worst of the worst." Three quarters of all Guantanamo detainees are false positives!

If the security services who prevent attacks - DHS, FBI and others - were to assert that rather than merely profile certain passengers, arrest, detain, question, let go, and chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, or even profile certain passengers, arrest, detain, question, hold forever and chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, now we're going to profile certain passengers, skip the arrest and preemptively kill them and then chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, who could stop them?

If this is far-fetched, why is it far-fetched, in light of the bizarre, radical and very fast changes in the new center and the new normal over the last ten years?

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