What we lost on 9/11

OK. Sometimes an alert is a false alarm. Can’t be helped. But then you say, “We’re sorry to have over-reacted to what turned out to be nothing,” rather than “The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not.”

The damage al-Qaeda did to us that day can’t possibly match the damage we’ve done to ourselves since. I’m not just talking about silly rituals like taking your shoes off at the airport; I’m talking about a whole “1% principle” way of thinking.

Consider, for example the case of Shoshana Hebshi (American citizen, Saudi father, Jewish mother) who flew from Denver to Detroit on Sunday. She was seated in a row with two Indian men, strangers to her, and with whom she exchanged no words on the flight. But some bigoted moron decided that three people deficient in melanin deficiency seated together on an airplane on the anniversary of 9/11 constituted “suspicious activity,” and that moronic call was enough to trigger a fighter escort, an armed descent on the airplane after it landed, questioning at a police station for all the passengers, and handcuffing, hours in a cell, strip-searching, and of course utter terror for the three innocent people singled out for no good reason whatever.

What’s even worse than the hyper-reactivity of the system is the quote attributed to the FBI flack: “Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously. The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not.”

But of course, if you’re part of a government that has officially adopted the Big-Brotherish slogan “If you see something, say something,” you’re not likely to make the appropriate remark in this case: “We profoundly apologize to the three innocent people whose lives were disrupted by what turned out to be a false alarm. We do our best to balance safety against everyone’s right to travel unmolested; we don’t always get that balance right.”

The only good news in the case is that the actual officers involved seem to have acted with reasonable civility. One of them told Ms. Hebshi, correctly, that people had been “seeing ghosts” that day; apparently the Detroit non-incident was one of fifty nationwide.

Maybe if our security forces spent a little bit more time asking questions of the people who call in their random fantasies, they could spend less time questioning innocuous travelers. In the meantime, if you see something, make sure you’re really seeing something. Otherwise, do everyone a favor and STFU.

Note to the White House: Three phone calls from the President would take a total of fifteen minutes. Time well spent, it seems to me.

[h/t James Fallows]