Airlines face new threat–vigilantism

October 2, 2006

Leave it to a blogger to report what appears to be a growing trend of airline passengers taking anti-terrorist actions into their own hands. Paul William Tenney writes (posted on Newsvine):

This continues a disturbing trend of frightened and irrational airline passengers racially profiling other passengers. Just one month ago, passengers on a British flight refused to allow the plane to take off unless a few of their fellow passengers — two young Asian men — were removed from the plane.

Their only crime and the only evidence of intent the rebellious passengers had: the two men were speaking in Arabic.

In the lead incident a Jewish architect was jumped by fellow passengers on an American Airlines flight because they became suspicious of him. One, apparently falsely, identified himself as a New York police officer. American offered the architect $2000 dollars for his troubles but he declined and is now pursuing legal action against American and the passengers who jumped him. Tenney points out this is one of several recent disturbing incidents.

In my view vigilantism is always a serious problem that needs to be dealt with strongly. But it is also important when dealing with vigilantism to look to its roots. It normally comes after a period of simmering frustration over the lack of protection. The Minutemen “protecting” our borders are out of line. But it is a symptom of deep frustration over the lack of enforcement of existing laws. Vigilantism in the wild west emerged when inadequate law enforcement led to, well, the wild west. In the case of airline vigilantism, it would be easy to conclude that it is not consistent with this frustration because of all the things TSA and the government is doing to stop terrorist activities. Yet, we all know that by far most of it is cosmetic. The latest example is refusing any liquids on board only to come out a few weeks later and say, well, liquids are not the danger we thought they were. This destroys credibility, trust and confidence and leads some to think they need to protect themselves. I for one, and I think the public as a whole, is getting very fed up with cosmetic security and will start calling for real security. At that time, those in charge are going to start having to deal seriously with the issue of racial profiling. Watching sweet little ladies get searched thoroughly just doesn’t make much sense and does not make us feel more secure. It does lead to frustration, anger and taking the issue into private hands–a potentially more dangerous development than the terrorists we fear.

From a crisis management perspective, the airlines now have this trend to fear as well. There is not an easy answer. American offered the gentleman money–but the offer implies some kind of guilt or responsibility. Was it the airlines responsibility? What responsibility should they accept and have to take? I would guess this answer will be found in the courts and usually juries assign responsibility based more on deep pockets more than what is fair and right and reasonable. Clearly a warning sign for airlines, and a whole new opportunity for entrepreneurial attorneys.

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