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An Essay 2007-02

Aug 27, 2007

We leave our rights behind when we enter a U.S. airplane: Passengers are treated as presumed terrorists 

Terror in the Sky

If we don't protect our rights, they will go away.  Our government and the airlines are doing their darnedest to see that happens.


Terror in the Sky

We leave our rights behind when we enter a U.S. airplane:  All passengers are treated as presumed terrorists.  If we don’t protect our rights, they will go away.  Our government and the airlines are doing their darnedest to see that happens.

SCOTTSDALE, Aug 27 - Rights are like a garden.  If you protect them and nurture them, they will thrive.  If you don’t, they will wither and die.  And you will become a vegetable in someone else’s garden.  You will eat, drink, live or die at their mercy.

Do you want to be a vegetable?  I don’t.  I came to this country because I was treated like a vegetable in a communist country in which I grew up.  When my student friends and I stood up for our rights, the government tried to cut us down like vegetables.  That’s the prospect Americans face unless they stand up and say “enough is enough” to the government that’s trying to take away our rights for the sake of “protecting us.”

The ploy is as old as mankind.  Take the Mafia, for example.  First they threaten and intimidate.  Then they offer protection.  For a price, of course.  The Nazis did that to the rich Jews.  They could buy their way out.  We know what happened to the rest.  Communist governments “protected” their people from “bad” western influences by closing their borders and locking up the people inside.  If some rose up or spoke up, they cut them down.  Like vegetables.  Or just let them wither and die in a Gulag.

In this country, our hard fought-for rights are enshrined in the Constitution.  Like the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and all that.  We all grew up believing that the Constitution is like a fortress.  Impenetrable.  Which makes us feel safe.  Our rights are stored in a secure place.  Right?  Wrong.  Thieves have broken into the fortress.

If in doubt, think Guantanamo Bay.  Think government’s illegal domestic wiretapping.  Think government’s illegal eavesdropping on our telephone calls and e-mails.  Think government searches without a warrant.  Think of CIA’s illegal abduction and “rendering” of suspected terrorists to foreign countries for torture.  The list of constitutional violations goes on and on.

As for foreign visitors to the U.S., they are now being fingerprinted on arrival like common criminals – business executives, scientists, accomplished artists… makes no difference.  Might as well hang out “foreigners not welcome” signs above immigration booths.  And that in a “country of immigrants!?”

Since the vast majority of our population does not experience such government intrusions in their lives, they may find these as distant and esoteric examples.  Not relevant to their personal rights or daily lives. 

Not for air travelers.  We, the frequent flyers, are subject to government abuses and rights violations every day.  Yet meekly and obediently, we all take off our shoes, get our laptops and boarding passes out; get frisked by people we normally would not let us touch by a 10-foot pole; have our toothpaste or shaving cream tubes taken away; turn our cell phones on and off on command; go to the bathroom only when told…

Once on board, we get treated as if we were suspected terrorists.  Again, like vegetables, we do nothing.  We let them do all that to us for the sake of “protection.”

And what happens if we speak up?  We get cut down.  Like vegetables. 

In short, we leave our rights behind when we enter an airplane.  Here’s what happened to me, for example, on a recent American Airlines flight from New York to Chicago. 

We were about half an hour into an hour and 45 minute-flight.  The captain had turned off the “fasten seat belts” lights and announced it was okay to move about the cabin.  The young man seated in the 5A window seat next to me asked if I would let him step out to get something out of his bag.  I did. 

I stood back between the first class and the main cabin, looking out the row 6 windows while waiting for him to get to his bag.  Suddenly, I heard someone shout, “sit down!”  And again, for added emphasis, “sit down!”  It was the flight attendant.  She was standing behind a cart about 20 feet up the cabin in front of the cockpit.

I had noted her brusque attitude even while we were on the ground at La Guardia, but thought nothing of it at the time.  “Maybe she’s just having a bad day,” I brushed it off.  I did, however, find it objectionable the way she woke me up just before take-off.  She tapped me on the shoulder and ordered, “Move your seat up.”

No “please.”  No “excuse me, Sir.”  Just do as you’re told.  Never mind that the passenger was asleep.  And now she was yelling at the young man in front me to sit down as if he were commanding a dog.

The young man sheepishly sat down.  So did I.  But as I went back to my seat, I saluted the rude flight attendant and said, “Yes, Sergeant Major!”

The young man seemed shaken up.  He said he didn’t know what he did wrong.  Neither did I.  We soon found out.

The flight attendant came over, still looking hot under the collar.  “Didn’t you see that I had a cart in the aisle?” she lectured us.

“So what?” I thought.  “Well, the ‘fasten seat belt’ lights were off,” I tried to explain, without raising my voice. 

It turns out that one of the flight crew members was in the restroom.  (How were we to know that?).  Guess there must have been some new government (or airline?) regulation that requires passengers to be seated while the captain takes a leak?  And this bull mastiff of a flight attendant and her cart are supposed to guard the cockpit from suspected terrorists, such as the young man in 5A and myself?

“That’s all fine and dandy, but that’s no way to talk to a passenger.  You can’t yell at us like that,” I said.

“I am here to keep you safe,” she declared pompously.

“And how about politeness?” I said.  “We are your paying customers.  You can’t yell at your customers like that.”  I suggested that perhaps she was taking herself a little too seriously.

“Well, I take my job VERY seriously,” she said didactically.

Seeing that it was a waste of time trying to talk sensibly to her, I said I would report her rude behavior to the American Airlines.  I told her I have flown nearly two million miles with her airline, and that hopefully someone else will pay attention to what I say if she does not.  I noted the name badge on her hip.  It was at my eye level, as I was seated.  The name read Karen Harris.  I said it out loud. 

And that was it.  A verbal exchange that lasted less than a minute. 

A few minutes before landing in Chicago, the flight attendant came over to me and handed me a piece of paper.  It was titled “Notice – Your Behavior May Be in Violation of Federal Law.”  In it, the flight attendant had underlined the words, “threatening, intimidating or interfering with a flight crew member (Federal Regulation 91.11) is supposedly one such violation.  I felt as if I were getting a ticket from a police officer.  (Which is probably not far from how this flight attendant envisages herself, based on her behavior).

“I hope they don’t beat you up,” the young man next to me said.  I thought it was a hyperbole; that he was kidding, and just smiled back.

“For what?” I said.  “For asking a flight attendant to be polite?”

I should not have been dismissive of the young man’s comment.  Maybe he was speaking from experience?

When I stepped out of the airplane, I was met by two American Airlines agents.  One of them was holding a piece of paper in her hands.  “So what happened up there?” she said.

“What do you mean ‘what happened’?”

“Well, the flight attendant filed this report in which she said you had refused to sit down and had threatened her.”

I was totally flabbergasted.  It took me a second or two to compose myself and register what had just happened.  I was being falsely accused and framed for something I had not done because the flight attendant evidently realized her job may be in jeopardy after I write to American Airlines.

“That’s preposterous,” I said.  “I did sit down.  And the conversation we had, which was lasted than a minute, took place while I was seated and she was standing the whole time.  The only ‘threat’ I made was to report her rude behavior to her employer.” 

I then explained what had happened.  I noted the irony that I ended up now in trouble for standing up for another passenger whom the flight attendant was abusing.

The two ladies seemed satisfied and let me go.  “Okay, we’ll let you go on to your next flight,” the one with the paper said.

“Go on to the next flight?  So American Airlines was going to treat me like a real terrorist and not let me continue my trip?”  At that point, I was more startled than angered by that realization.  Much later on, a sense of outrage started to build as I recalled from my youth similar injustices people suffered at the hands of communist government officials.

But I had no time to contemplate that just yet.  Before I left the gate area, I was met by another uniformed American Airlines official.  His name was Sean.  He said he was with an American Airlines Customer Relations agent.  He was holding the same piece of paper.  He was nice and sympathetic.

“You should never do that,” he counseled me after he’d heard my account of what had happened.  “Up there in the air, they have absolute power.  And this piece of paper goes to the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority).  You should have waited to land and then complain to us about the flight attendant.”

“But I did wait,” I said.  “The entire exchange to her took less than a minute.  I was now going to go to the Admirals Club and write to you guys a complaint letter from there.  Knowing that, the flight attendant evidently launched a preemptive strike against me, trying to frame me and protect herself.”

All this back and forth with American Airlines agents at the gate in Chicago took about 10-15 minutes.  Eventually, they let me go.  Eventually, I did write a letter to American Airlines from the Admirals Club.  And not just to their Customer Relations Department.  Also to their CEO, Gerard Arpey and their senior vice president of marketing, Daniel Garton. 

I asked them if “such behavior as Ms Harris' is acceptable for an AA employee?  As a customer, I always have a choice.  Your people remind me of that every time I fly.  And I do fly often.”  With American Airlines alone, I have flown 1,963,703 miles to-date (according to their web site).

At least the right to choose an airline has not been taken from customers.  They took away our right to use laptops at any time without any evidence whatsoever that they endanger safety of the aircraft any more than any paper notebook would.  How do I know it?  Because I used to use laptops during take-offs and landings in the 1980s and early 1990s.  It was not until the mid-1990s that the government restrictions about their use at takeoff and landing crept in. 

They did the same with cell phones.  No evidence of threat to safety, either.  Not anymore than the wireless phones that the airlines used to have built-in in the seats before the cell phone popularity exploded.  One difference – on built-in phones the airlines made money.  On cell phones, they don’t. 

Cell phones posing a safety issue?  Oh, please…  Not unless you’re in close proximity of some volatile Hollywood personalities like Russell Crowe or Naomi Campbell. :-)

The list of government intrusions into our lives ostensibly “for our protection” keeps expanding: Toothpaste, shaving cream, ladies’ make-up… even bottles of water.

And do I feel safer?  Of course, not.  Not when I see the kinds of morons who administer these government rules.  Again, they remind me of communist doofuses from my youth.  “Blue collar revenge,” is how I explain what happens at airport security gates to friends who don’t travel as much.  Well dressed and good looking people, especially women, are usually singled out for frisking.  And that’s not “profiling?”

One female business executive, who reviewed an early draft of my story, told me today she was recently “singled out again” (for a body search) as her husband stood aside and counted: “11 women (frisked while he waited).  Not a single guy,” he had told her.

That’s not just “profiling.”  That’s abuse.  A “blue collar”-administered and government-sponsored abuse of our upstanding citizens, especially women.  Communists also used to do that to the upper middle class whom they called the "bourgeois."

And by the way, adding injury to insult, every single American Airlines flight I took on my latest trip was late, one by over three hours.  And I was apparently the lucky one.  One family from San Diego with two young kids was more than a day late coming home from Brussels (Belgium). 

Nor are other U.S. airlines any better.  As you can see from the “Readers’ Forum,” another lady missed her flight to New York because of Delta’s overbooking.  She had to change terminals twice, lugging her bags, to make a Boston connection.  When she could not find any Delta agents to give her correct information about where to go, tired and frustrated, she ended up sitting on the floor and crying. 

“Guess what?” my friend said. “She got arrested and spent a night in jail.”

Arrested for crying – for crying out loud?

“She is preparing to sue the airline now,” my friend added.  Who wouldn’t?

Such abuses aside, inconsistent manner in which the security checks are done is another reason I don’t feel any safer now than before 9/11.  When you fly overseas, for example, in most countries no one will ask you to take off your shoes.  Some places they won’t even ask you to take your laptop out of the bag, either.  In all countries, except in Britain (Heathrow), their security staff is friendlier than the TSA people at home. 

“I wish I had a chance to travel as much as you do,” a young man told me wistfully just yesterday.  “It seems like so much fun.”

“It used to be,” I said.  “In fact, Cunard’s slogan was, ‘getting there is half the fun.’  Not anymore.  Now getting there is the worst part.”  I explained why.  I added that I was getting ready to write a story about it.  “It will be called, ‘Terror in the Sky’,” I added.

The young man shrugged it off.  “Still,” he said wistfully.  He didn't care.  He just wanted to travel.

Why should you care?  Because it could happen to you, too.  Because it IS happening to you, too.  You don’t have to be a frequent flyer to see how extensively the government has already intruded into our privacy, eroded our rights and meddled in our lives.  Every time someone asks for your social security number you see an example of it.  Every time you drive by one of those speed cameras on your street or freeway, you can see another example of it.

By now, of course, we have been conditioned to regard government video surveillance as an acceptable form of “protection.”  Cameras are everywhere… at airports, stores, parking lots, ATMs, hotels… We have all become unpaid extras in reality shows. 

And what do we do about it?  Shrug.  Nada.  Let’s not rock the boat.  Better to appease the authorities than to speak up.

Do you know that Winston Churchill said about such attitudes before World War II?  “An appeaser,” he said, “is someone who feeds the crocodile hoping it would eat him last.” 

America is evidently full of appeasers these days.  Like that young man seated next to me on the New York-Chicago flight.  Or the hundreds of millions of people who shrug when someone violates their rights while claiming to “protect” them.

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people?”  Not anymore.  “Presumed innocent until proven guilty?”  Only in films or books.  “Up in the air they have absolute power,” as that Chicago American Airlines official said.  You are presumed to be a terrorist and treated as such.

Still thinking it won’t happen to you?  Okay.  Check out what Pastor Martin Niemoller said in his address to the U.S. Congress on October 14, 1968 about his experiences in Nazi Germany:

"When Hitler attacked the Jews
I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned.
And when Hitler attacked the Catholics,
I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned.
And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists,
I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned.
Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church --
and there was nobody left to be concerned."

Maybe it's still not too late to learn from history.  If the occupants of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” did it, why, some American ostriches might, too.

We still have a chance to take an active role in protecting our rights.  I took such a step by writing this article.  You can do it by calling or writing your congressman, or senator, or governor, or mayor, or city councilman, or an airline official… and let them know that “enough is enough;” that we don’t want their “protection” if it comes at the cost of our liberties. 

For, rights are like a garden.  If you protect them and nurture them, they will thrive.  If you don’t, they will wither and die.  And you will become a vegetable in someone else’s garden.  You will eat, drink, live or die at their mercy.

Don’t want to be a vegetable?  Nor an ostrich?  Then take care of your rights.  Or they will go away. 


Bob Djurdjevic is a writer and president of Annex Research, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based consulting firm.  He is also founder of Truth in Media, a non-profit organization.


To check out some reader comments about this essay, including a response by American Airlines, click on READERS' FORUM (Aug 2007).

Also see... Hillary: A DEMONcratic Candidate?; "Toward a Nation of Morons" (Washington Times); Sellout of America - II (Foreign holders of U.S. securities increase their stakes to record levels); Liberation! (by death and destruction); New York Blues Ring Hollow; Election 2004: Patriotic Dissent; Origins and History of the Electoral College; Sellout of America...

Also, check out other Djurdjevic's WASHINGTON TIMES columns: "Chinese Dragon Wagging Macedonian Tail,"  "An Ugly Double Standard in Kosovo Conflict?", "NATO's Bullyboys", "Kosovo: Why Are We Involved?", and "Ginning Up Another Crisis" etc.

Or Djurdjevic's NEW DAWN magazine columns: "Washington's Crisis Factory,"  and "A New Iron Curtain Over Europe"

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