Editor: This is the personal and harrowing account of the woman who was among three passengers forcefully removed from Flight 623 that originated in San Diego on September 11th. It is a wake-up call to anyone who hasn’t been introduced to the Patriot Act. This is America of today.
Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit
By Shoshana Hebshi / From Stories from the Heartland / September 12, 2011
Silly me. I thought flying on 9/11 would be easy. I figured most people would choose not to fly that day so lines would be short, planes would be lightly filled and though security might be ratcheted up, we’d all feel safer knowing we had come a long way since that dreadful Tuesday morning 10 years ago.
But then armed officers stormed my plane, threw me in handcuffs and locked me up.
My flight from Denver landed in Detroit on time. I sent a text message to my husband to let him know we had landed and I would be home by dinner. The plane stopped on the tarmac, seemingly waiting to have the gate cleared. We waited. I played on my phone, checking Facebook, scrolling through my Twitter feed. After a while of sitting there, I decided to call my husband to tell him the plane was being delayed and I would call him when I got off the plane.
Just as I hung up the phone, the captain came over the loudspeaker and announced that the airport authorities wanted to move the airplane to a different part of the airport. Must be a blocked gate or something, I thought. But then he said: Everyone remain in your seats or there will be consequences. Sounded serious. I looked out the window and saw a squadron of police cars following the plane, lights flashing. I turned to my neighbor, who happened to be an Indian man, in wonderment. What is going on? Others on the plane were remarking at the police as well. Getting a little uneasy, I decided the best thing for me to do was to tweet about the experience. If the plane was going to blow up, at least there’d be some record on my part.
Stuck on a plane at Detroit airport…cops everywhere
Soon the plane was stopping in some remote part of the airport, far from any buildings, and out the window I see more police cars coming to surround the plane. Maybe there’s a fugitive on the plane, I say to my neighbor, who is also texting and now shooting some photos of the scene outside. He asks me to take a few, as I have a better angle from my window seat. A few dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers are huddled off the side of the plane. I don’t see any guns, and it isn’t clear what’s going on.
So I continued to tweet: A little concerned about this situation. Plane moved away from terminal surrounded by cops. Crew is mum. Passengers can’t get up.
Then what looked like the bomb squad pulled up. Two police vans and a police communication center bus parked off the road. I started to get nervous and rethink my decision to fly on 9/11.
Cops in uniform and plainclothes in a huddle in rear of plane.
We had been waiting on the plane for a half hour. I had to pee. I wanted to get home and see my family. And I wanted someone to tell us what was going on. In the distance, a van with stairs came closer. I sighed with relief, thinking we were going to get off the plane and get shuttled back to the terminal. I would still be able to make it home for dinner. Others on the plane also seemed happy to see those stairs coming our way.
I see stairs coming our way…yay!
Before I knew it, about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen–bigger than what the guards carry at French train stations.
My last tweet: Majorly armed cops coming aboard
Someone shouted for us to place our hands on the seats in front of us, heads down. The cops ran down the aisle, stopped at my row and yelled at the three of us to get up. “Can I bring my phone?” I asked, of course. What a cliffhanger for my Twitter followers! No, one of the cops said, grabbing my arm a little harder than I would have liked. He slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.
The cops brought us to a parked squad car next to the plane, had us spread our legs and arms. Mine asked me if I was wearing any explosives. “No,” I said, holding my tongue to not let out a snarky response. I wasn’t sure what I could and could not say, and all that came out was “What’s going on?”
No one would answer me. 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.
I never had any run-ins with the law. Since 9/11, though I felt a heightened sense of how my appearance would affect my travel plans, I never had any concrete reason to think I would be targeted. I passed through security without excessive searching (except that one time they thought they saw a pocket knife in my husband’s backpack, which they couldn’t find anyway even though it was there). Because I am my father’s daughter I am aware of the possibility of anti-Arab and anti-Semitic sentiments that have increased dramatically, but luckily no members of my family nor myself have had to endure what so many others have gone through in this country and throughout the world. As Americans we are scared and horrified by acts of terror. But I am not sure that what we are doing to dissuade and protect are working.
We arrived at an offsite building and remained in the squad car for a few minutes. The Indian man was taken out of the car first, and an officer stood at the door to make sure I didn’t go anywhere. I asked him several times what was going on and he wouldn’t answer me. It was like I was invisible. I felt so helpless and shocked. I was being treated like a criminal.
Then it was my turn. I got out of the car and was led, still cuffed, to a cell. “Are you serious?” I asked the officer, and he said yes. The heavy metal door was shut and locked behind me. Again, I asked what was going on and why was I here. Finally he said, they will let you know later. They are going to ask you some questions.
I sat down on the metal cot that hung off the wall. It had a thin, green vinyl mattress–mattress is a generous term–that offered no comfort. It was about a 6-by-10 cell, the concrete walls were painted a light yellow but were streaked with black dirt. The floor was some sort of stainless steel, and a stainless steel toilet that has probably never seen the good side of a scrubbing brush, instructed me to keep holding my stretched bladder as long as I could. Near the ceiling above the toilet there was a video camera.
A plainclothes officer stood came to my door and asked me if I spoke English. Something in me snapped at that question. Of course I spoke English I’m an American citizen, you asshole! Well, I left the expletive out. “Ok,” he said and stood watch outside my door saying he wanted to make sure I didn’t “flush anything.” He also wouldn’t tell me what was going on.
As I sat and waited, quietly contemplating my situation, the other Indian man was getting questioned in the main room outside. I couldn’t see what was going on, but I could hear a bit. They asked him where he was from, did he have any family, where were his shoes. He talked quietly and agreeably. I wondered if he was as incensed as I was or if he had entered this country expecting harassment from the American authorities.
They took him to another room, and I heard an officer tell him to remove his clothes. He was going to be searched. I could not fully grasp what was happening. I stared at the yellow walls and listened to a few officers talk about the overtime they were racking up, and I decided that I hated country music. I hated speedboats and shitty beer in coozies and fat bellies and rednecks. I thought about Abu Ghraib and the horror to which those prisoners were exposed. I thought about my dad and his prescience. I was glad he wasn’t alive to know about what was happening to me. I thought about my kids, and what would have happened if they had been there when I got taken away. I contemplated never flying again. I thought about the incredible waste of taxpayer dollars in conducting an operation like this. I wondered what my rights were, if I had any at all. Mostly, I could not believe I was sitting in some jail cell in some cold, undisclosed building surrounded by “the authorities.”
I heard the officers discuss my impending strip search. They needed to bring in a female officer. At least they were following protocol, or something to that nature. Still, could this really be happening?
Eventually a female uniformed officer came in. She looked like a fat Jada Pinkett Smith, and in a kind but firm voice explained what was going to happen. I was to stand, face the wall in a position so the camera above the toilet couldn’t see, and take off my clothes. I complied. She commented on my tattoo, saying,
“Oh you have one of those things–good and evil, right?”
“Yin and yang. Balance,” I said, grabbing my clothes to redress.
“You understand why we have to do this, right? It’s for our own protection,” she told me.
Because I am so violent. And pulling me off an airplane, handcuffing me and patting me down against a squad car didn’t offer enough protection. They also needed to make sure all my orifices were free and clear.
She apologized for having to do the strip search, and I asked her to tell me what was going on. She said she didn’t know but someone would come and talk to me. She put my handcuffs back on and left. The other officer stood guard outside. I told him I needed to call my husband. He said I could use the phone later.
As I sat in my cell trying not to think about my full bladder, they brought another man in. I wondered if he had been on the plane as well. Were they going to bring everyone in or had they just singled us out? He spoke belligerently, and I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying. But I did hear two officers talking about the man who stole a $3,000 watch at the security checkpoint. Now there’s a real crime. What was I doing here?
I had no idea how much time had passed. It was about 4:00 when I sent my last tweet on the plane. I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. I was tired, confused, angry and bored. I wanted my phone. I wanted to call my husband so he could come to Detroit and rescue me. I wanted to update my status so my friends weren’t freaking out. Did I also want a lawyer?
Another female officer, this one in jeans and a t-shirt came to visit me. She introduced herself as an agent–Homeland Security. She removed my handcuffs and had me follow her to a different room down a long hall and through a few doors. As we walked, I got a glimpse of the watch-stealer, a chubby middle-aged white guy with a buzz cut. He didn’t look too different from some of the officers.
She led me to a small, white room where a man who introduced himself as an FBI agent was waiting for me. I sat on one of three chairs at a small metal table, and the female agent sat across from me. They both offered me their badges for inspection, not that I would have known the difference, but they were calm and not pushy. I appreciated that. 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?
He warned me that the last time an incident like this happened back in December, they had to interview everyone on the plane and no one got to go home for six hours. It was going to be a long haul.
They asked me if I wanted to add anything that they hadn’t asked. I said no. Then they asked if I needed anything. I said I needed a real bathroom, and the female officer, saying she didn’t blame me, offered to take me to the officers’ bathroom. I must have peed straight for five minutes.
She walked me back to my cell, telling me it was for my own protection as they had brought in the rest of the passengers for questioning. They would fetch my stuff from the plane and allow me to call my husband. My cell had been occupied by the Indian man I had sat next to on the plane and in the squad car. So I waited for them to move him to the second cell that was holding the watch stealer. As I passed by the small window in that room I could see the watch stealer splayed out on the cot. He appeared to be asleep. I wondered where the Indian man would sit.
After fingerprinting me and asking me about my height/weight/place and date of birth and so on, a middle-aged white cop with a beer belly and a flat top returned me–without handcuffs–to the cell. I waited, wondering if I would be spending the night locked up. I thought about the last words my husband said to me while I was still on the plane waiting on the tarmac, “They must have found out there was a Hebshi on the plane.” We joke about this at times, that because of my ethnicity I am being scrutinized but I had no intention of putting that out to the universe and making it happen.
I thought about Malcom X and how bravely and fastidiously he studied and wrote while he was in prison, how his solitude enabled him to transform his anger into social change and personal betterment. That’s when I decided to write this post. I needed to explain what had happened–was happening–to me. I was not going to be silent. Still, I wondered what my rights were, and though I felt violated and scared I wasn’t sure that our new laws protected me from this treatment.
The female agent returned to my cell with my cell phone. She wanted me to show her my tweets–that were simultaneously posted onto Facebook–I had composed while on the plane. She joked that she didn’t even have a Facebook account. She left for a few minutes then returned and allowed me to call my husband. She said I would be released in a few minutes.
The sound of his voice brought me to tears, but I tried to remain calm. I gave him a one-minute recap of my situation, which only left him confused. I told him I would call him when I got to my car, which was parked in an airport lot.
I hung up the phone and followed the officer out of the cell and into another small room where the male FBI agent was waiting accompanied by another FBI agent–possibly the head honcho on duty. He said the three of us were being released and there was nothing suspicious found on the plane. He apologized for what had happened and thanked me for understanding and cooperating. He said, “It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.” He said they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like.
He said there had been 50 other similar incidents across the country that day.
I was led out another door and down a long hall where I gathered my bags, which had been removed from the plane and searched. In the hallway I saw the other two men who had also been detained. They seemed happy to be being released as well. It felt strange to smile at them, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
We walked outside of the building, and for the first time I saw that we were at the airport police station, which also doubled as the spot for the local Homeland Security office to reside–an office that didn’t exist 10 years ago. It was starting to get dark. But I still didn’t know what time it was.
Another officer drove me to my car in the airport parking lot. As he plopped into the drivers seat and me into the passenger’s seat of the unmarked sedan, he apologized for not having air conditioning, but being a descendant of desert people I obviously didn’t mind the heat. He asked me if I was OK to drive back to my home in Ohio, and I said I was, though I wasn’t sure I was. I wasn’t sure how this would affect me. I am still not sure.
All I know, is I probably won’t be flying again on Sept. 11.
In the aftermath of my events on Sept. 11, 2011, I feel violated, humiliated and sure that I was taken from the plane simply because of my appearance. Though I never left my seat, spoke to anyone on the flight or tinkered with any “suspicious” device, I was forced into a situation where I was stripped of my freedom and liberty that so many of my fellow Americans purport are the foundations of this country and should be protected at any cost.
I believe in national security, but I also believe in peace and justice. I believe in tolerance, acceptance and trying–as hard as it sometimes may be–not to judge a person by the color of their skin or the way they dress. I admit to have fallen to the traps of convention and have made judgments about people that are unfounded. We live in a complicated world that, to me, seems to have reached a breaking point. 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.
I feel fortunate to have friends and family members who are sick over what happened to me. I share their disgust. But there was someone on that plane who felt threatened enough to alert the authorities. This country has operated for the last 10 years through fear. We’ve been a country at war and going bankrupt for much of this time. What is the next step?
You can read more about the ordeal from this