Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Almost a quarter of a million bucks for having to cover up a t-shirt?

JetBlue Airways and the American government (on behalf of two TSA employees) have paid $240,000 to Raed Jarrar in settlement of his claim arising from a 2006 at Kennedy Airport in New York, according to this AFP story reported last evening on Yahoo! News.

Jarrar was a U.S. resident -- not a citizen, in other words -- who showed up at JFK for a flight to Oakland wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Arabic script. (The shirt, translated, read "We will not be silent.")

The AFP story leans heavily on information provided by the American Civil Liberties Union. An ALCU lawyer apparently represented Mr. Jarrar. The AFP story does not specify what claims were filed based on these facts:
[Jarrar] was told other passengers felt uncomfortable because an Arabic-inscribed T-shirt in an airport was like "wearing a T-shirt at a bank stating, I am a robber,'" the ACLU said.

Jarrar eventually agreed to cover his shirt with another provided by JetBlue. He was allowed aboard but his seat was changed from the front to the back of the aircraft.
This is worth $240,000?

There is, I confess, a part of me that sympathizes with Mr. Jarrar: He had done nothing wrong. And I find it pretty easy to get upset about the narrow-minded bigotry of people who seem to become reflexively "uncomfortable" in the presence of someone like Mr. Jarrar.

But... I recall flying once with a colleague -- well before 9/11 but shortly after a story had been widely disseminated about two airline pilots getting busted for reporting to work drunk. We were boarding the plane and the flight crew was greeting passengers as they boarded. My colleague, a nervous flyer, made some offhand remark, something like, 'these guys look sober enough' -- and I felt the temperature drop 50 degrees.

The smiling pilots stopped smiling. "Do you realize we can ground this flight?" they asked. We can have you removed, they said. We will take blood tests right now, they said. Various federal regulations were cited. Profuse apologies followed and the situation resolved peacefully... but this experience taught me that, even before 9/11, airplanes were somehow different from public places.

Also, I can't shake the feeling that Mr. Jarrar's wardrobe choice that day was 100% intentional. I'm willing to bet that he had another t-shirt available to wear for the flight. Maybe one that said "Yankees," for example, since the flight was originating in New York. In other words, I can't help but think that the airline and the TSA were set up. And, all of a sudden, my sympathies vanish.

It wasn't mad Methodists or lunatic Lutherans who hijacked airplanes on September 11. No, the 9/11 hijackers all claimed to be devout Muslims. It is unfair that hard-working, God-fearing, patriotic American citizens who happen to be Muslims are eyed with suspicion in airports -- sometimes even prevented from immediately completing their travel plans. But it is a fact that some self-professed adherents of Islam have declared war on the West in general and on the United States in particular. Why, then, is a certain degree of caution -- directed specifically toward Muslims and not toward everyone in general -- inappropriate?

A hundred years ago, members of other ethnic groups tried to combat nativist prejudices by trying to look and act more American than the Americans around them -- by learning and using English exclusively, even in the home. Clerks at Ellis Island Americanized a lot of family names -- but a lot of immigrants did this on their own, too. I guess in this day and age these coping strategies would be considered somehow demeaning. I don't really understand why, though: If I were to move to Saudi Arabia or Iraq, I'd make darn sure I looked and acted as little like an American as I could.

The linked AFP article does not explain the legal theories underlying Mr. Jarrar's complaints in any detail. I would have liked to see those. Maybe looking at the statutes involved would explain the amount of the settlement. Instead, we have a quote from ALCU lawyer Aden Fine: "The outcome of this case is a victory for free speech and a blow to the discriminatory practice of racial profiling."

I see it's a victory for Mr. Jarrar. But I'm just not sure about the rest of it.


Anonymous said...

That is why there needs to be a cap on amounts won in law suits. It makes people, who normally wouldn't sue, think up ways to make money. They forget their scruples because of greed.

Dave said...

While I disagree with Karen, being the former ACLU member that I'm often ashamed to be, you are right in all you lawyerly say. I'm hoping there's something in the case that justifies the settlement.

I do remember flying from San Antonio back to Atlanta two months after the attack and seeing an Asiatic/Muslim/pick your origins sort of guy being frisked, patted, poked at three points on the way on to the airplane. He endured it all with great grace. No words of any kind on his clothing.

He got on the plane and he and I arrived safely in Atlanta.

Patti said...

they weren't Mad Methodists or Lunatic Lutherans?
Were they crazy Christians? No, I guess not.

All I know is he got a lot of $$ for a rather ridiculous claim.

Hilda said...

Good for him, if more people did this the airlines would stop kow-towing to idiots. The bottom line is the man did nothing wrong and was harrassed for *nothing*.

He can wear anything he wants without having to worry about making ignorant people nervous. If they were so concerned *they* should have gotten off the plane and deal with their paranoia.

And for the record I *am* a proud card carrying member of the ACLU.