Yea, us! American paranoia about terrorism—which of course is mixed up with paranoia about difference—has finally reached a new apex of stupidity. Though of course there is room to grow even dumber with the security theater, but this one just has a certain resonance of moronic.
A teenage airplane passenger using a Jewish prayer object caused a misunderstanding that led the captain to divert the Kentucky-bound plane to Philadelphia and prompted a visit from a bomb squad.
A 17-year-old boy on US Airways Express Flight 3079 traveling from New York to Louisville was using tefillin, a set of black boxes attached to leather straps and containing biblical passages, said Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore.
Even if someone is sitting there praying to Allah that the plane go down, it actually won’t make the plane go down, you know. In general, however, I think terrorists that would be smart enough to get a bomb on a plane would probably be smart enough not to get caught by going through elaborate prayers right in front of everyone else before setting the thing off. Out of curiosity, since I had never heard of this custom before, I looked at some pictures of tefillin. Here is what I discovered:
And this is what it looks like when worn:
Speaking as someone who has never seen this before, I can say my natural inclination is to think it’s a little weird-looking. But not so weird-looking that I’d assume it was anything but a kooky but harmless religious practice, which is exactly what the kid in question told the flight staff when they asked him about it. But was his sensible explanation accepted by the flight staff? No, the “that’s weird!” hysteria kicked in and it was off to Philadelphia for an entire plane of people in no danger whatsoever, except of missing important meetings or dinner.
Here’s the thing: I see people doing kooky religious stuff on planes all the time. They just do it while wielding a cross and a Bible, instead of little boxes. I see women dressed in obnoxiously “modest” clothing, but since it’s made out of gingham and other faux “Little House on the Prairie” materials, they register as Christians, and no one looks at them sideways. If the kid thought that this was a country where open observance of religious practice by private people was tolerated in public, that’s because it is, at least if you’re Christian.
As an atheist myself, I have an interest in this, and not just because I am an adamant supporter of religious freedom. It’s also because I’m selfish—I want to be able to read “The God Delusion” on a plane without having the FBI called because I’m being visibly non-Christian. And as the prophet of the Church of the Mouse and the Disco Ball, I really don’t want to see planes getting rerouted towards the bomb squad because someone’s listening to Donna Summers on their iPod. Doing stuff like this doesn’t do anything to stop terrorism, but it does send the message that America is an intolerant, bigoted country where simply being different in a public space can be treated like a national emergency.