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Let's Clarify What We Mean by "If You See Something, Say Something"

by Matt Hershberger Aug 9, 2016

“IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING.” That’s the anti-terrorism slogan that’s plastered across subway cars, airport baggage claims, and train stations across the country. And it’s a good slogan, for the most part. Fighting terrorism is a communal effort. But we may need to clarify something: There has been a recent string of incidents in which airline passengers and employees have reported Muslims for simply looking like Muslims.

See, when we say, “see something,” we mean “something suspicious.” The following things do not count under the definition of “being suspicious.”

1. Reading a book.

Faizah Shaheen, a British psychotherapist, was returning from her honeymoon in Turkey when she was pulled aside for questioning. The reason? She was reading a book on Syria.

Shaheen works with mentally ill teens. “I said that to the police. I’m actually part of trying to fight radicalization and breaking the stereotypes.”

Shaheen was questioned and was eventually allowed to leave. But she plans on filing a complaint against the airline.

2. Using a phone.

Nazia and Faisal Ali were flying home from their 10th anniversary trip from Paris to Cincinnati, when a member of the crew complained that she was uncomfortable with the couple. Her reasons? Nazia was wearing a headscarf and using a phone (Nazia says she was just putting in her earbuds for take-off). Faisal was sweating.

The pilot refused to take off until they were removed from the flight.

The couple, along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), is filing a complaint against Delta airlines for their treatment. CAIR is currently pushing the Department of Transportation to create better guidelines on when it is okay to eject a passenger from a plane for safety reasons.

The Ali’s flew back to Cincinnati the next day. Nazia says she almost didn’t wear her headscarf to avoid being hassled again, but decided against it, “because I did nothing wrong. It was humiliating. We were treated like criminals. I thought, `We are American citizens. You can’t do this to us.'”

3. Doing math.

Guido Menzio is a renowned Italian mathematician. So when he got on a flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse, New York in May of this year, he sat down to work on some equations. The woman next to him wanted to chat, but Menzio was busy, so he brushed her off.

She then slipped a note to a flight attendant claiming that the dark-complexioned man next to her was writing something threatening in a foreign language.

The language was math. Officials escorted him off the flight, quickly recognized math as math, and let Menzio off the flight. The racist passenger decided not to take the same plane.

Here’s what counts as “suspicious activity.”

Someone looking like a Muslim is not suspicious. If you see a Muslim reading a book, doing math, or sweating, do not assume, “THAT’S TERRORISM!” Hit the brakes, Batman. Suspicious activity actually has a definition according to the Department of Homeland Security. It includes, they say, but is not limited to:

  • Unusual items or situations: A vehicle is parked in an odd location, a package/luggage is unattended, a window/door is open that is usually closed, or other out-of-the-ordinary situations occur.
  • Eliciting information: A person questions individuals at a level beyond curiosity about a building’s purpose, operations, security procedures and/or personnel, shift changes, etc.
  • Observation/surveillance: Someone pays unusual attention to facilities or buildings beyond a casual or professional interest. This includes extended loitering without explanation (particularly in concealed locations); unusual, repeated, and/or prolonged observation of a building (e.g., with binoculars or video camera); taking notes or measurements; counting paces; sketching floor plans, etc.

In an airport, it’s the things they repeat ad nauseam over the loud speakers: If someone leaves their baggage unattended, or if they ask you to take care of their bags for them. That’s suspicious. It’s also suspicious if you hear someone explicitly say something about having a bomb. It is not suspicious if you hear someone say, “Allah.” Allah just means God. I say “God dammit” myself about 892 times on every flight, and I, a white dude, have yet to be reported for it, despite my phrasing being a bit more colorful than that of anyone just saying “Allah.”

The DHS adds, “Factors such as race, ethnicity, and/or religious affiliation are not suspicious. The public should only report suspicious behavior and situations (e.g., an unattended backpack or package, or someone breaking into a restricted area).”

Don’t be a racist. Travel is enough of a pain in the ass already without you delaying flights because you’re a bigot and a dullard.

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