Thursday, January 21, 2010

Beware of Exploding Tefillin

A USAirways flight from New York to Kentucky was diverted for an emergency landing due to a "disruptive passenger" causing "security concerns" today.  A teenage boy had tied an unidentified object to his head and another to his forearm, alarming a flight attendant.  The items turned out to be tefillin.

Roughly 95% of you, at least before today, had no idea what tefillin are.  If this is the first time you're hearing about this story, you may still not.  Tefillin is a word of Aramaic origin which is usually translated as "phylacteries."  There, don't you feel informed?  It is little wonder that, shortly after this story hit the news today, "tefillin" and "phylacteries" were two of the five most googled terms on the Internet.  If you're still wondering, tefillin are leather boxes with biblical passages inside which are affixed by observant Jewish men to their heads and arms during weekday (but not Sabbath or holiday) morning prayer.  The picture above gives you an idea. News reports indicate that the boy tried to explain what he was doing, but not only did that not satisfy the flight attendant, the pilots were not convinced.  They decided to "take no chances" and land the plane in Philadelphia.

I cannot begrudge the flight attendant not knowing what these were.  Unless she was Jewish, she would have had no reason to ever have seen them or even heard of them before.  It was certainly worth a question to the passenger involved, who appears to have been saying his morning prayers because he was on a plane at the appropriate time.  To those of us who know what tefillin are, and for whom they are an unusual but not unheard of sight, the notion that the plane was diverted, however, is at best silly and at worst offensive.  However, I try to look for understandable motivations when people do strange things, and so, although I think this could have been easily avoided, I can understand, from a trauma reaction perspective, what happened.

As you all know, on Christmas day someone with explosives in his underwear tried to blow up an airplane.  If you work as a member of a commercial airline flight crew, that has to have affected you particularly strongly.  It's one thing for those of us who fly on planes, even frequent flyers, to contemplate that someone is trying to bring one down.  If you're on a plane daily or several times a day, it has to be that much worse.  Mathematically, your chances of being on the one plane that blows up greatly increase if you're flying that much, and that's just the rational view.

People who are recovering from a trauma often find themselves alarmed by things that don't bother other people.  For example, someone who was exposed to gunfire may flinch every time a door slams.  Soldiers returning from Iraq report having difficulty walking past lines of cars in parking lots because they reflexively fear that one is a bomb.  This all makes sense, and as a short term reaction it's pretty typical.  So, given the recent attempted bombing on an airliner, the fact that the flight attendant was somewhat more easily alarmed and suspicious makes a lot of sense.

That having been said, there is a difference between saying that someone's reaction makes sense and completely indulging it.  There is a difference between understanding that car doors make someone jump, and so perhaps closing the doors more gently or giving warning, and driving with the doors open to accomodate the person.  Similarly, the fact that this flight attendant was alarmed does not really excuse the rest of the flight crew from the obligation to decide whether there actually was something dangerous going on. It may be understandable that people are a little afraid.  That doesn't actually mean we have to give over all rationality to hysteria.


Colleen said...

I can see tefilin being strapped on looking scary...but when questioned, a teen being polite and normal, perhaps offering to show the scrolls, should have diffused the situation.

On the other hand, the airline personnel ought to be keeping an eye out for people behaving oddly...but the protocol shouldn't be that oddity that is thoroughly reassured still needs to be assumed dangerous!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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