How easy it is to get angry but how difficult to accept you might yourself be wrong. Each time Mummy admonished me as a child I would fall foul of this maxim. I daresay most children are the same. But one does expect adults to be more mature. Alas, I’m afraid the way we, as a nation, have responded to the 12 detained by the Dutch authorities for their behaviour on board Northwest Airlines proves this isn’t always so.
First the facts. I’ve been told the 12 men boarded with 60 mobile phones between them. They literally had carrier-bags full. Then, oblivious of rules that apply on all airlines, they switched them on, passed them around and, worst of all, began ringing each other. This continued even after the plane took off. Despite repeated announcements they should desist they did not. If that wasn’t enough, they also undid their seat-belts and began to change places whilst the plane was still climbing. One or two were physically pushed back into their seats by airline marshals but that didn’t stop them.
No doubt these details only emerged after the Dutch Embassy communicated exactly what happened to our Ministry of External Affairs. However, there were clear hints from other passengers who reported misbehaviour on board the flight. Nitin Dalal and Bharat Menon in The Hindu and Jagpal Singh and Sharad Menon in Indian Express are the ones I remember. But there must have been several others. The Indian press heard them but didn’t really take in what they said.
As a nation we decided that the 12 were detained because they were Muslim or because they were brown-skinned and Indian. Those who felt a small fastidious need to bolster this assertion with proof found it by asking: would a white passenger have been treated similarly even if he behaved this way? The answer was implicit and obvious. No.
Well, let’s start with that question. The actual answer is yes. Barely six days earlier, an American woman on board a United Airlines flight to Washington attracted suspicious attention, was handcuffed and the plane diverted to Boston. It turned out she was claustrophobic. But her behaviour created doubt and the fact that she had a screwdriver, a lighter and photographs of Pakistan added to those concerns. So clearly, regardless of colour or religion, airline security staff in the West react with panic when certain types of behaviour occur.
The real issue is can our 12 be excused for behaving the way they did? No. First, it was against all rules of airline travel and the claim they’ve got away with similar behaviour in India is neither excuse nor explanation. Second, to have behaved irresponsibly after the Heathrow scare was foolhardy, if not actually defiant. They may not have meant to be so interpreted but they should have known they would be. Ignorance is not a credible answer when you have flown to Trinidad and claim to have done so many times before. Third, when the western world is suspicious of Muslims behaving irresponsibly to choose to deliberately fall into that category is rank stupidity. But if you insist let it be at your own risk.
So what’s the conclusion I’m driving at? Actually, there are three. I don’t think the Dutch were wrong. Once the Northwest Airlines plane chose to return to Amsterdam it would have been irresponsible not to thoroughly investigate the 12. And, frankly, even if you think the reaction of the crew and airline marshals was exaggerated it was, in the circumstances, understandable. As a frequent flier, I’d rather an over-reaction than complacency. At 35,000 feet, you can’t take chances.
Second, were we right to demand an apology before we knew the full facts? If this ever happens again — and it might — I would advise discretion and silence until all the details are known. It’s never too late to ask someone to say sorry. But to hastily demand an apology and get it wrong is a little embarrassing.
Third, a lesson for all of us: whilst we must never accuse someone because he’s Muslim, don’t excuse him on those grounds either. Regardless of faith, dress or beard, stupid behaviour is indefensible. In times of stress it provokes panicky and harsh reactions. When that happens the fault lies more in the behaviour than in the over-reaction. And, without doubt, our 12 behaved like yokels.
None of this is to deny there’s racism and the West is often guilty of it. And there have been racist responses to the Heathrow scare. But what happened to our 12 was different.
Finally, before accusing others shouldn’t we check if we’re free of the same prejudice? It’s easy to get angry — it’s a lot more difficult to accept you are at fault yourself.