Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Panic attack at 35,000 feet

I was just perusing this article at Reuters today, and a thought struck me. Dangerous, I know. But I was still wearing my motorcycle helmet, so the damage was minimal.

The quotes that bothered me were these:

The woman was carrying hand cream and matches but was not a terrorist threat, said Christopher White, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman. Those items are not banned on commercial flights, he said.

which was followed by this statement:

"Her carry-on bags subsequently were searched and matches were found in the bag as well as a gelatin-like substance but those items were not deemed to have any terrorist connection or pose a threat to the aircraft," Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told a news conference.

Now, is it just me or is it absolutely NUTS that the governor of the state of Massachusetts had to give a press conference to confirm that there was no terrorist threat posed by the hand cream a claustrophobic woman happened to have with her on an airplane? What's up with the world that we can't accept that a bottle labeled "hand lotion" actually contains hand lotion? Thanks to the rumor-mill that feeds the press these days and their exuberance to get us up-to-the-split-second news just a moment ahead of the competition, the following FALSE statements were made regarding this woman's carryons:

One media report carried on CNN and major TV networks, and later denied, said the woman had Vaseline, a screwdriver, matches and a note on the Islamic militant group al Qaeda.

This reminds me of a passage from a novel I particularly like in which one of the characters explains that he's a terrific Questioner of Prisoners, although he's never actually employed any sort of torture techniques. He explains that his success is due to two things. First, he's just got a very good poker face and can look utterly like the sort of person who would commit torture. Second, after the prisoner refuses to answer the first round of questions, he asks one of his subordinates to fetch him a list of totally random items (like salt, oil, and a basket of mice) and doesn't specify what they're for. The prisoner gets so worked up in their own mind imagining all the awful things that could be done to them with salt, oil and a basket of mice that they start spilling whatever information they have before he ever has to carry out his unspoken threat to use the stuff.

Are we so dad-gum scared of al Qaeda that we're jumping at salt, oil, and a basket of mice, or the equally innocuous contents of some grandmother's handbag? If that's the case, then they have won the "War On Terror", because we're terrified beyond reason. How is someone going to bring down an airplane with Vaseline, a screwdriver, matches and a note on Al Qaeda? How dangerous can a "note on Al Qaeda" be, anyway? If I had a pamphlet/flyer on air travel safety that mentioned Al Qaeda, would that count as a "note on Al Qaeda"? Unless the note is from Al Qaeda and is titled "Awful Things You Can Do To An Airplane with Vaseline and Matches (Matches optional)", I don't think we ought to worry so much.

The really grim irony in all this mess is that the woman was probably scared to death of being confined on an airplane because she's been told repeatedly that all sorts of extraordinary screening procedures, such as pouring out her bottled water, are necessary to make it safe. She either had claustrophobia or a panic attack on the plane, and $10 will get you $20 that she was envisioning fiery death!!! at the hands of Dasani-wielding terrorists when she started to freak out.

And, as something of an aside to the whole rant above, is it SO HARD for someone on board the plane to radio ahead and say "Oh, we've got a passenger having a panic attack. We'd like to divert and get her calmed down." Does every single episode of passenger freak-out have to trigger a major terrorist threat response? I'm reminded of Jonathan Burton, the Las Vegas 20-something who was beaten to death by his fellow passengers about a year ago when he had a similar freak-out on board a Southwest Airlines flight. Nobody ever figured out what caused his panic attack; although initial suspicions of drug use were floated, those were eventually ruled out. Still, does it have to be about terrorists every time someone on an airplane has a mental health episode?

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