A Racial Profiling Victim on 9/11 Shares Her Story

By Arturo R. García

On Sunday, three passengers at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport were detained after someone reported “suspicious activity on board.” Not long afterwards, one of those three passengers’ story has gained national attention after blogging about her treatment by Homeland Security officials.

According to The Associated Press, Shoshana Hebshi and two men were detained and questioned after the crew on their Frontier Airlines flight “reported suspicious activity on board.”

Hebshi, an Ohio resident who identifies as half-Jewish and half-Arab, wrote on her blog that she was sitting with two Indian men from Detroit when the flight was first diverted to a different part of the tarmac, then boarded by armed personnel. She and the two men were subsequently “pushed off the plane” and detained. Hebshi wrote that she asked, “What’s going on?” but did not get an answer.

She wrote:

They put me in the back of the car. It’s a plastic seat, for all you out there who have never been tossed into the back of a police car. It’s hard, it’s hot, and it’s humiliating. The Indian man who had sat next to me on the plane was already in the backseat. I turned to him, shocked, and asked him if he knew what was going on. I asked him if he knew the other man that had been in our row, and he said he had just met him. I said, it’s because of what we look like. They’re doing this because of what we look like. And I couldn’t believe that I was being arrested and taken away.

When the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11 and Arabs and Arab-looking people were being harassed all over the country, my Saudi Arabian dad became nervous. A bit of a conspiracy theorist at heart, he knew the government was watching him and at any time could come and take him away. It was happening all over. Men were being taken on suspicion of terrorist activities and held and questioned–sometimes abused–for long periods of time. Our country had a civil rights issue on its hands. And, in the name of patriotism we lost a lot of our liberty, especially those who look like me.

An airline spokesman told the AP the crew reported that two people were in the bathroom for “an extraordinarily long time.” Also, FBI representative Sandra Berchtold said security was heightened because Sunday was the anniverary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“All precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously,” Berchtold said. “The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not.”

According to Hebshi, she and the two men were taken to a facility and incarcerated while still handcuffed. Though she needed to go to the bathroom, she said, she was dissuaded by the toilet in her cell, which she said had “probably never seen the good side of a scrubbing brush.” Unbeknownst to her, the other 113 passengers on the flight were also taken to the facility for questioning. At least two other officers refused to answer when Hebshi asked for more information about her detainment.

Hebshi was later strip-searched by a female officer, before ultimately being questioned by two FBI agents.

The male agent proceeded to ask me a series of questions about where I had been, where I was going, about my family, if I had noticed any suspicious behavior on the plane. The other agent took notes while I talked. They asked if I knew the two men sitting next to me, and if I noticed them getting up during the flight or doing anything I would consider suspicious.

I told them no, and couldn’t remember how many times the men had gotten up, though I was sure they had both gone to the bathroom in succession at some point during the flight.

They had done some background check on me already because they knew I had been to Venezuela in 2001. They asked about my brother and sister and asked about my foreign travel. They asked what I did during the flight. I told them I didn’t get up at all, read, slept and played on my phone (in airplane mode, don’t worry). They asked about my education and wanted my address, Social Security, phone number, Facebook, Twitter, pretty much my whole life story.

Again, I asked what was going on, and the man said judging from their line of questioning that I could probably guess, but that someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity. What is the likelihood that two Indian men who didn’t know each other and a dark-skinned woman of Arab/Jewish heritage would be on the same flight from Denver to Detroit? Was that suspicion enough? Even considering that we didn’t say a word to each other until it became clear there were cops following our plane? Perhaps it was two Indian man going to the bathroom in succession?

Hebshi said she was allowed to use an officers’ bathroom following her questioning by the agents, before being returned to her cell and subsequently released. Berchtold told the AP authorities determined there was no real threat. And the Detroit Free Press reported that Kowalchuk refused to comment on whether Hebshi and the two men were racially profiled, saying Frontier was “following safety protocols.” Representatives of the Wayne County Airport Police, who were involved in the arrest, did not respond to the Free Press’ requests for comment.

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  • Bob Gordon

    Funny how pseudo-patriotic xeonophobia gets promoted by those who are least likely to find themselves on the front lines of tragedy.

    Because I worked five blocks away from the WTC and was thirty yards away from the second tower when it fell, I had to attend mandatory grief counseling a few weeks later.  One of the people in my group was an Egyptian woman who lost her husband on 9/11.  Weeping, she told us she had been berated in the street and told to “speak English” — sometimes by self-described “real Americans” — at least once a day  since the the tragedy.  She had been berated, she said, *even though she was in mourning*.  Obviously, so-called patriots had mis-identified her as an Other instead of the bereaved. 

    Just yesterday, I watched two people on a New York City bus yelling at a woman speaking Polish into a cellphone.  These people did not know one another but were united in their hostile incomprehension.  “This is America!  Speak English,” they repeated until I couldn’t take it any more and shouted them down until they left.

  • g_whiz007

    “All precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously,” Berchtold said. “The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not.” Yeah I’m so gushingly glad the FBI and Homland security are around to make people in the public that do not happen to be everyday half-Jewish, Half-Arab citizens feel safer. Everyone else’s feelings are irrelevant apparently.

  • Digital Coyote

    That should say “‘Safety’? Stop pulling my leg.”

    Are the in-flight servers waiting outside the door with stop watches? How long is “too long”?

    Flying While Ethnic is probably going to get much more dangerous as time goes on, but it will probably fly under the radar because of who is affected.

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    This makes me sick to my stomach.  This kind of profiling/treatment comes from a public whipped into a fear frenzy by racist and thoughtless talking heads with a complete disregard for (or perhaps lack of ability for) critical thinking.  

    What is the set amount of time that is “normal” for being in an airplane bathroom, anyway?  Anyone who’s in there wants to keep it as short as possible, but come on.  Eh.  Ridiculous.

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    This makes me sick to my stomach.  This kind of profiling/treatment comes from a public whipped into a fear frenzy by racist and thoughtless talking heads with a complete disregard for (or perhaps lack of ability for) critical thinking.  

    What is the set amount of time that is “normal” for being in an airplane bathroom, anyway?  Anyone who’s in there wants to keep it as short as possible, but come on.  Eh.  Ridiculous.