This post has been updated.
On Sunday afternoon, news broke that fighter jets had been scrambled to escort two planes — one bound for Detroit, the other for New York. It was, subconsciously at least, what many had been expecting: a terrorist attempt on the anniversary of 9/11.
When the planes landed the fears turned out to be unfounded. Three passengers were detained in Detroit and later let go after questioning. In New York, the on-board air marshal determined that the incident was not terror-related before the plane landed.
One woman, however, did not see the experience as particularly funny. Shoshana Hebshi-Holt boarded a Frontier Airlines flight Sunday after a weekend celebrating her sister’s birthday in California. The 35-year-old mother of 6-year-old twins was hoping to make it home in time for dinner.
Instead, she wound up handcuffed, strip-searched and questioned as a possible terrorist. The freelance writer, still stunned by the day’s experience, took to her blog Monday afternoon to piece together what happened to her in a post titled, “Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit.”
Her seatmates were two men of Indian descent, living in the United States. They did not talk during the flight, but when the plane landed and police cars swarmed it, her row struck up a conversation, trying to make each other feel better in what seemed like a possibly very bad situation. It would only get worse.
She also tweeted about the experience. As a former journalist, it seemed natural to report what was happening. Plus, if something bad occurred on her plane, at least her words would offer up a record of it. Her last tweet, after the plane landed: “Majorly armed cops coming aboard.”
Much to her shock, the cops came to her row and handcuffed her and the two men. In the police car on the tarmac, she turned to her seatmate and asked whether he knew what was happening. He had no idea. She wrote in her blog:
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.
After she was strip-searched and questioned and held in a cell, the authorities let her go to muse over what had happened to her country.
Frontier Airlines did not get in touch with her or apologize. In a statement, the company said, “The primary responsibility of our flight crews … the pilots and flight attendants … is the safety of all passengers on board the aircraft at all times.”
The company went on to say that only the two men had been reported to authorities for suspicious activity and all other “actions taken by federal authorities after the report were their own and were made without any further involvement from Frontier or any company employee.” The FBI also deflected responsibility for the arrest, FBI spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said the FBI were only involved in the questioning of the suspects.
In an interview, Hebshi-Holt said she had been overwhelmed by the response to the post, and that for the most part, people reacted with kindness and support. She liked the dialogue it started, even if she hated what happened to start it.
“It doesn’t make sense to operate in this way,” she said. “It fuels violence and it fuels hatred.” She said she had no ill will toward the officials that handled their case: They were just doing their job. And she understood people’s fears and the need for national security. But she says the experience of being considered a criminal on the basis of her skin color humiliated her.
“We live in a complicated world that, to me, seems to have reached a breaking point,” she wrote. “The real test will be if we decide to break free from our fears and hatred and truly try to be good people who practice compassion – even toward those who hate.”
Hebshi-Holt was not the only Arab-American to take to the web after experiencing backlash on Sunday. A Texas-based Arab-American wrote on Yelp after a bar in Houston drew a plane flying toward the World Trade Center on his to-go food box and wrote, “Happy September 11th” on it.
“As an American first and foremost, I find that kind of cavalier attitude offensive at best, and when coupled with the fact that it was coming from a service provider, prejudice and anti-American at worst,” Tarek G. wrote. He updated the next day saying that the owner of the bar contacted him, apologized and promised to fire the offending employee.
Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) sent out a press release expressing concern over the number of incidents of troubling behavior directed at Arab-Americans on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Among other reports, a burned Quran was delivered to a Bronx mosque and a New York mosque sign was smashed by a speeding driver.