When Fear and Paranoia Take Wing

On a flight from Los Angeles to New York, the police removed four suspicious passengers. My reaction still haunts me

By Ann Marsh

I caught one of the first United Airlines flights out of Los Angeles International Airport for New York a few days after the terrorist attacks of September 11. At the time, I figured it might actually be safer to fly out of an airport swarming with police and security staff. By the time I landed, I wasn't so sure.

In retrospect, this might have been one of the flights from which the FBI yanked suspected accomplices of the terrorists. The whole episode caused me a lot of soul-searching. Rightly or wrongly, I and a couple of my fellow passengers did a fair share of the racial profiling to which people have succumbed on flights since September 11. Our fears that day were echoed by airline security. I may never know for sure. But here's what happened.

I was going to New York, where I used to live, to celebrate my 35th birthday with old friends. This was days after the terrorist attacks, and when I arrived at LAX, a sense of shared sadness hung in the air. Travelers struck up conversations readily, commiserating. I overheard a woman in line tell a man that she had lost family members. She began to cry. Someone from United led her away.


  I ended up chatting with a man who would also board Flight 890 with me. I'll call him the filmmaker (he asked that his name not be used for this article). When we got into long lines at the metal detector, the filmmaker noticed another passenger carrying a large, beat-up camera -- an over-the-shoulder model that looked like it might belong to a television news crew. The filmmaker asked me, "How would anyone [in security] know how to examine that piece of equipment?"

It was a good question -- one for which we certainly didn't have an answer. Garrulous and friendly, the filmmaker said he had smiled at this other man. The man, who appeared to be Middle Eastern, returned his look with what looked like a sneer, the filmmaker was embarrassed to tell me later. As the filmmaker was collecting his things on the other side of the metal detector, a woman's voice declared loudly, "Someone stole my watch."

The voice came from Lori Dunston, a Manhattan resident who would also end up on our flight. At about the time the camera and its owner were moving through the detectors, one of the airport security personnel apparently took Dunston's Cartier Tank watch off the top of a counter where Dunston had set it down. It took a half-hour for police to arrive, rewind a security film, and observe the incident on tape. They then led away the security woman, who was loudly protested her innocence before anyone had accused her of anything.


  After boarding, I ended up sitting at a window seat in the same row as the filmmaker, on the opposite side of the mostly empty plane. As I started putting my luggage in an overhead compartment, I turned to see a second young man, possibly Middle Eastern, walking down the aisle toward me. I looked at him and he looked straight through me. I can't say that we made eye contact, because it was more like looking at a wall. I got the impression that something angry was coiled inside him. Or maybe I was edgy. He moved quickly, like an athlete, unencumbered by carry-on baggage, across several rows. He sat in front of the filmmaker.

My first reaction was visceral: "Could I take this guy?" If we were to be hijacked, I wanted to go down like the people who died in Pennsylvania. I'm taller, I thought, but what if he were extremely strong? I am white and Dunston is African American. She had seen the same man at the boarding gate and noticed that he seemed nervous. "It's not fair, but I thought the same thing," she told me later. "Could I take him, knife or no knife?"

It was for both of us a split-second thought. I quickly decided I was being absurd. He'd probably passed through a gauntlet of FBI profilers and metal detectors. He's O.K., I reasoned. Perhaps both he and the cameraman only looked surly because people had been throwing them hostile and suspicious glances since September 11.

Suddenly, a nail file and clippers seemed menacing

The trusting part of me wouldn't prevail for long. I kept an eye on him as we sat on the runway. Meanwhile, the filmmaker came over to chat. He had discreetly passed along his concerns to a flight attendant. He noted that he himself had been permitted to board the plane with some strangely shaped electrical equipment related to his film work. Why, he wondered, had no one searched that beat-up camera? I realized that I had inadvertently brought in my purse a metal fingernail file and a pair of nail clippers. These unremarkable items suddenly looked menacing.

A bizarre-enough episode by itself, the alleged theft earlier at the gate took on a much larger meaning now. The filmmaker and I wondered whether it was some kind of distraction to ease that "sneering" man with the beat-up camera through the security check. After all, the apparent theft co-opted the security cameras for a span of time. And why would even the dimmest thief lift a passenger's watch while surrounded by a dozen other security people, policeman, and rolling cameras?

An announcement came over the loudspeaker: The plane was going through security checks. We would be delayed. Maybe an hour later, we still sat there, no one complaining. Finally, another voice instructed us to take our assigned seats. A further announcement then informed us that there were "problems" with the travels documents of several passengers.

One of the four men had reservations to 19 U.S. cities.

A minute or two later, a female flight attendant walked back into our cabin, along with an official-looking fellow. A plainclothes policeman, I thought, or maybe airport security. The flight attendant bent down to talk to the young man who had caught the attention of Dunston and me. It was a quick conversation. The man jumped up and was escorted off the plane. The filmmaker, who was sitting right behind the man when this exchange occurred, said the flight attendant had discovered the man couldn't speak English. When she addressed him, he broke into a muffled laugh and stood up.

After he left, a flight attendant thoroughly searched the area around the man's seat. I felt a deep sense of relief. Once in the air, another flight attendant told me four people were escorted off the plane, two in first class. One of them was the man with the old, beat-up camera. "The one with the camera had reservations to 19 different cities in the U.S.," said a flight attendant, who would not tell me the passengers name.

I felt very awake now. I was paying attention to everything and everyone. When a young mother sitting in front of me with a baby asked to borrow my nail file, I handed over the implement with a polite but uncomfortable smile. As she used it, I looked down at the handles of my nail clippers. What was I expecting? To duel with toiletries? It seemed absurd. Our in-flight dinners were served with metal forks, metal spoons -- and plastic knives. But hadn't the hijackers wrested control of commercial airplane jets with nothing more than knives and box cutters? Life had become absurd.

As we touched down, the passengers applauded. I walked up to a pilot in the cockpit. He smiled at me, arms crossed. Yes, he told me, four passengers were removed from the airplane before takeoff. "There's a lot I can't tell you," he added. Later I learned that airlines were removing passengers from different flights around the country.


  Matthew McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Los Angeles office of the FBI, would not say whether any of the four men removed from flight #890 were among the more than 600 persons in the country being detained after the terrorist attacks. "This is a matter of national security," McLaughlin said. "Over 6,000 people are already dead. We are just not commenting on any aspect of this case." On Sept. 30, The New York Times reported that all the people removed from flights because of concerns by suspicious airline crews and passengers were found to have been innocent. The assertion was made without attribution, and a spokeswoman at the FBI says the agency cannot verify that information.

As I spoke with the pilot, a flight attendant jubilantly planted a kiss on his cheek. A happy reunion of more than a dozen pilots and flight attendants began all around me, behind the cockpit and spilling out into the walkway. Everyone was laughing and exclaiming. At the baggage claim, none of my fellow travelers seemed to have noticed what happened on our flight. I mentioned the four men to another young mother who was pushing her baby in a stroller. Her eyes widened. "Don't even tell me," she said. "I don't want to know."

Marsh is freelance writer living in Santa Monica

Edited by Thane Peterson

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