Andrew Klavan says that everyone who says they’ve never had an anxious thought about flying Muslims is a liar; Jeffrey Goldberg insists that he never personally has a Bad Thought because he does the math:
There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. Of these 1.3 billion Muslims, it is my belief that only several thousand, or at most, several tens of thousands, are directly involved in Islamist terrorism. Therefore, the chance that a Muslim in any given airport is a terrorist is very small. I also don’t believe that al-Qaeda and like-minded groups and individuals are targeting air travel, because they did that already (this is one of the reasons I think the TSA represents a misapplication of government resources).
Goldberg’s right, of course. I applaud his admirable rationality on the issue. But I’d just point out that this makes him kind of a freak, because most people are at least a little bit irrational about flying generally, if not outright phobic. That’s an observation that no one seems to be considering in this debate, although it’s germane to the charge that everyone who has the Bad Thought must be a bigot.
Professional pilots aside, almost everyone has a sort of uneasy feeling about being in a big metal cylindrical tube that hurtles through the air at 700 miles an hour and very occasionally plunges into the ground in a fiery inferno. We all know the statistics, most of us sort of grasp the idea of the Bernoulli effect and have heard all that reassuring stuff about the multiple backup systems and all those terrific training hours the pilots put in working the simulator, but really, most of us still feel safer in a car, even if logically we know that’s absurd. Goldberg is obviously just one of those superbly rational human beings who never lets his emotions run the show; I’ve met them, they exist, but for most of us–be honest–we’re fine in that 747 until there’s a weird noise or a big unexpected turbulence thwump, and then, DANGER! DANGER! REPTILE BRAIN ALERT!–there goes all chance of an in-flight nap; bring on the double vodka.
So yes, most of us do look superstitiously for all sorts of little signs that this flight is going to be just fine–pilot looks sober–check; pilot looks old enough to have done this before–check; they seem to have done a pretty good job cleaning the seat pocket, that probably means they’re careful with engine maintenance–check. And in that context, “No one looks like a terrorist on this flight–check!” is a pretty normal thought to have as you proceed through your pre-flight totally irrational safety checklist. I also like to make sure they really de-ice the wings well, because I still remember that 1982 Potomac crash.
Okay, so, having that thought doesn’t make you a bigot, it just makes you a normal anxious passenger. And that reminds me of a funny story. After I left the Rico Party in San Francisco I flew out of SFO, where I was seated next to a dangerous terrorist suspect–at least, that’s what my reptilian brain said. Little guy, dark-skinned, subcontinental in appearance, wearing some kind of terrorist-gear, like a white robe or something, and poring over some kind of religious text. Huh, I said to myself, You shouldn’t have a bad, bigoted thought, but he sure does look like a terrorist. You’d better not think that, though, because that’s bigoted and bad.
I took my seat next to him, then I noticed something that in just one glance told me I could strike him off the list of Bad Signs. Beneath the seat in front of him was a bag that said, “South India Trade Company.” South India–that probably meant he was from Bangalore, and since Bangalore has a huge high-tech industry, that meant he was probably just coming back from a high-tech business meeting. And he was probably a Hindu, because most people from Bangalore would be.
I just wanted to confirm, though, so that I could take my nap in perfect peace. “So,” I said to him, “That book–it’s Kannada, isn’t it?” Kannada being the language spoken in Bangalore.
He nearly dropped sideways with shock. “Yes! It’s Kannada! How did you know!” We had a long talk about the time I was in Bangalore, and how much it must have changed since then, and his job, and the book he was reading –Vedic scriptures–and I could see in his face how glad he was that I didn’t think he was a terrorist, because it must just really suck to have everyone think you’re a terrorist every time you get on a flight, and suck all the more if you’re a Hindu; after all, it must be galling to be under suspicion as a Muslim when in fact you too are worrying about being killed by a Muslim.
No moral here, just a nice story. He seemed like a lovely Bangalorean. Hope everything went well for him, especially with his visit to his family–he seemed a little fretful about that, about whether he was bringing back the right presents for his mother-in-law and his wife and his kids.