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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2002 / 26 Teves, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Consumer Reports

Air on the side of caution -- JUST two questions about the American Airlines pilot who booted a secret service agent from his flight on Christmas day: What is his flight schedule? And, can we please, all of us, always fly with him?

Three days after Richard Reid tried to blow up American Airlines Flight 63, a man identifying himself as a secret service agent boarded American Airlines Flight 363. He was the real McCoy, a 7-year veteran of the force named Walied Shater, but his permit to fly armed was a little fishy. Even before his paperwork sent up red flags, though, the man attracted notice for exiting the plane after boarding (odd) and leaving his carry-on luggage at his seat (a no-no). He also left a book that a flight attendant noticed was inscribed in Arabic-style writing (positively nervous-making in these days of Arabic-style terrorism).

The captain, in his subsequent report, would describe Shater as "nervous and anxious," an emotional state, which, in the course of the airline's independent attempt to verify his identity, would evolve to "very hostile," then "loud and abusive." An airline manager, a ticket agent and a local policeman were able to corroborate the main points of the captain's account. This manager, who had also been in contact with the captain, also spoke with Shater, and reported that the secret serviceman admitted to filing improper paperwork and losing his temper with the captain. The manager also stated that Shater "threatened that he would have my [the manager's] job." Whatever the final straw was, after something close to a 90-minute delay, American Airlines declined to carry Shater on Christmas Day. The agent joined the presidential entourage the following day via another American flight.

All's well that ends well? Hah. First, President Bush announces he'll be "madder than heck" (groan) if his agent was bounced because of his "ethnicity." Next, the agent hires legal counsel to charge exactly that: He was refused a seat on a commercial jet, his lawyers maintain, because of his Arab ancestry. "Pure and simple, this is a case of discrimination," said attorney John Relman. Without ruling out a lawsuit, the agent is demanding an apology from the airline and "civil-rights" training for its crews.

Let us pause for a moment of mirthless laughter before unmasking this phony flap for the travesty that it is. Of all people, a presidential bodyguard should understand the pilot's crucial charge: to ensure the safety of his passengers and crew, not to mention people on the ground -- or in unfortified towers of steel and glass. It seems more than passing strange to have to recall that two American Airlines planes were among the four aircraft commandeered on Sept. 11 by 19 Arab Muslims and turned into weapons of mass destruction. A Muslim man tried to do the same thing to another American flight several days before Shater came aboard displaying odd behavior, out-of-order paperwork and a disturbing temper. And he was packing heat. A captain would have be ruinously negligent or out of his mind to take such a passenger, Arab sheik or Mayflower Madam, on faith.

The question that Shater and counsel now cling to seems absurdly beside the point: Was Shater "racially profiled"? The answer is, let's hope so. While the man's volatile demeanor would have gotten a Swiss cuckoo-clock-maker tossed onto the tarmac, his ethnicity, along with his sex, age and solo traveling status, fits the "profile" of the person most likely to pose a threat to airborne passenger planes -- even if that does make the president "madder thank heck." Remember the security checker at Boston's Logan Airport who, with a cheerful "Have a nice flight," waved five Arab men onto United Airlines Flight 175 on Sept. 11? The woman reportedly remains haunted by the face of one hijacker whose "odd" behavior troubled her at the time. Would that she had thought to do something -- yes, even a little, quick mental "profiling" -- that might have ensured those doomed passengers a nicer flight.

"Threats of lawsuits will not deter us from justly applying the security programs established to protect ... customers who entrust us with their lives," American Airlines has stated. Bravo. Instead of asking for an apology, Shater might consider making one. And instead of demanding "civil rights" training for airline crews, he might look into a little civil-aviation training for himself -- emphasis on "civil" -- to learn what it takes to be a good passenger.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West