Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Flight is Diverted by a Prayer Seen as Ominous

Following the events of 9/11, Americans have become increasingly more skittish around non-mainstream religious practices. This particular article discusses an event in which an observant Jew, engaging in a customary religious ritual, was mistakenly viewed as a threat to the security of a Kentucky-bound flight. On January 22, 2010, a 17-year-old male, aboard the flight, strapped tefillin to his wrists and head, and began the ritual of morning prayer. An alarmed flight attendant, ignorant to this customary practice, alerted the captain, believing that the boy had just strapped some sort of explosive device to himself in order to destroy the aircraft. The pilot, erring on the side of caution, diverted the plane to Philadelphia. Upon landing, police officers boarded the plane and searched for explosives, while placing the boy and his sister in handcuffs. After discovering that there was no imminent threat, the boy and his sister were released. In retrospect there existed no threat to the security of the aircraft and its passengers; however, ignorance of anomalous religious practices caused the flight attendant to raise the alarm. “But the obvious reality of it is that when we see people carrying explosive material in their shoes and their pants and I am the passenger next to him and see someone strapping, I would panic too,” Isaac Abraham, an observant Jew said.

It is evident from this article that although the First Amendment to the Constitution provides individuals with the right to engage in the free exercise of his/her own religion, this right, as has been seen throughout the history of the United States, is not absolute. There do exist certain exceptions to the Free Exercise Clause. The question then becomes: When is it necessary to restrict one’s religious practices? In this particular instance, one might also ask: Was it beneficial or even necessary to land the plane prematurely and apprehend the alleged terrorist? One could even go further and ask: Did such actions taken by the flight crew and police officers violate the young man’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution?

In response to such questions I would say that first and foremost it is pertinent to understand that the Free Exercise Clause, along with other clauses contained in the Bill of Rights, is not absolute. Although the Framers intended to establish a nation grounded in the acknowledgement of certain individual rights, they recognized that exceptions to such freedoms did exist. As can be seen throughout the history of the Supreme Court there have been instances in which freedom of speech, press, and religion were denied under varying circumstances. “Fighting words,” for example, have been deemed to be illegal; because the statement of such words could result in imminent danger to individuals. Similarly, at times, religious practices could be halted if they present danger to innocent civilians. In the post 9/11 world that we live in, it is in our nature to be more skeptical of “unusual” religious practices. The fear of future terrorist attacks has caused the implementation of somewhat harsher restrictions on individual freedoms. In the predicament described in the article it does appear that there was no threat of an attack. However, at the time, the flight attendant was acting in a manner of good faith. She felt that it was her duty to protect the innocent individuals aboard the aircraft. If that meant alerting the captain; prematurely landing the plane; and having the suspicious individual searched and handcuffed; then that was the risk she was willing to take. In my opinion I believe that the flight crew and police officers acted in a fitting manner. At times one’s rights must be suspended in order to ensure the security of others. Some might argue that the ignorance of the flight attendant caused an innocent individual’s rights to be suspended for no legitimate reason; and that such actions were a violation of the Constitution. I would argue, however, that in this instance, due to the nature of the world that we currently live in, it is better to act in good faith to protect innocent individuals; then to allow one person to continue with his/her religious practices that could possibly lead to the loss of innocent lives.

In summation, at times, and I believe in this instance, religious freedoms can be infringed upon in order to guarantee the safety of others.


Dallas M said...

In my honest opinion, I believe that the flight crew did go a little overboard with their handling of the situation. Yes, after 9/11 Americans have become more skeptical about other non-mainstream religion, but it does not excuse the fact that there are other religions whose rituals differ from Christianity. We as people never take the time to learn more about other religious backgrounds because we are so afraid that once we let our guards down another 9/11 will happen again. I say that in order for us to stop living in fear we should devote the time to study other people’s customs and beliefs if we want to advance towards better relations with people outside our country and within.

John S. said...

While I do agree that the flight attendant and others overreacted in this situation, it seems like another important consideration is that all parties need to revise their thinking. Additional familiarity with religious beliefs and practices are definitely helpful, however, I wonder if any general education in religion would have included this particular ritual. In today's environment of heightened security, everyone needs to be sensitive. One by educating themselves on religious practices, but also being aware that religious practices done publicly may be misunderstood even by the most well meaning people, especially if that ritual involved boxes, wrapping something around yourself, and praying. Rabbi Greenberg seems to stress this point in the article. I don't think anyone would suggest that someone be prohibited from practicing a religious ritual, however, they should also be aware that if it scares people or looks like something they perceive to be threatening, someone might overreact and divert the plane.

LaurenL said...

I'm all for religious freedom, but when people are boarding our planes with explosives strapped to their bodies, planning to bring down the plane and kill hundreds of people, all for the sake of their religion, do they deserve the right to freely engage in practices of their religion? In one of his articles, political commentator and founder of The Middle East Forum, Daniel Pipes explains, "Islamists consider suicide as not just legitimate but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (sacred war). Going into war knowing with certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide (intihar) but martyrdom (istishhad), a much-praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of the hours in paradise." (
So personally I do not think that the flight attendant overreacted, but rather that she was simply doing her job...and doing it well. In the post 9/11 world, it’s her duty to be aware of any behavior that appears to be similar to that of suicide bombers or terrorists. When the safety of hundreds of people is in the hands of the flight crew, you’d better hope that they're aware of any seemingly unusual situations around them. It’s unfortunate that this is what it has come to, but I’d much rather have to deal with the slight annoyance of an emergency landing due to the cautionary actions of a flight attendant than have no landing at all.

Caitlin said...

This is a very tricky situation. I believe that the entire flight crew did their jobs and followed their instincts. To me the bigger question is “What rights are we willing to give up because of fear?” In today’s world it seems that the answer is all of them, until we are personally affected, and then we either get angry and insulted or understand that we chose this. I agree that 9/11 was a horrible tragedy and that most people (I wish I could say all) do not want it to reoccur. I also have no answer for changing people’s fears. But it is amazing to me how a country that began with an extremely limited federal government has given it so much power (and that people have channeled that government’s fears and opinions into their own minds) that a boy can be handcuffed for praying. Again, I do agree that everyone on that plane did the correct thing. I also agree with Rabbi Greenburg that in today’s world it is imperative to think about how others will perceive every action that one does. But I also think it is sad. I understand why this particular incident happened, and I understand why Americans are fearful of nearly everything that is unfamiliar. It still makes me sad.