Did I Save Lives Or Engage In Profiling?

Half a lifetime ago, I read a magazine essay that took deep root within me, and still sprouts whenever I find myself tempted to react to someone based on skin color. The author, an African-American, described what it was like to see people cross the street when he walked toward them on a sidewalk.

When racial profiling became an issue in the war against terrorism, I--an avowed liberal--found myself wondering what I would do if I saw someone who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent behaving in a way that could be considered "suspicious." A few months ago I stopped wondering.

A plane my 16-year-old son and I were scheduled to board was swapped with another because of mechanical problems. Although I was relieved to know we were boarding an aircraft that checked out, I still felt uneasy about flying because of the "shoe bomber" incident three days earlier. I hadn't noticed security checking anyone's shoes.

Once settled into the aisle seat, with my son next to the window, I learned there could be another delay because of weather. Before opening my novel I noticed a man in the exit row two seats ahead, looking toward the rear of the plane. He was olive-skinned, black-haired and clean-shaven, with a blanket covering his legs and feet. I thought that was strange, because I felt so warm. No one else was using a blanket.

Nine-C, as I called him, sat motionless for 10 minutes, except for glancing nervously down the aisle every few minutes. Then his leg started to shake, and he seemed to be reaching for something under his blanket. He bent over. Adrenaline coursed through my body. I sensed something horrible. The plane was still on the ground, but I felt airsick.

"You're being ridiculous," I told myself. "Nine-C just wants to get home. He's cold; he has to use the bathroom. Just relax and keep your water bottle handy, in case he lights a match."

But he was very big, and the people sitting near him were not. And I wondered, "What if he goes to the bathroom to light his bomb?" Then I looked at my son--I thought of his potential, his brilliance as a musician and mathematician. How could I tell if 9-C was a terrorist? I couldn't.

I forced myself to walk to the rear of the plane. "What should a passenger do if she sees someone behaving in a way she considers odd?" I asked the flight attendant.

"Tell me about it."

"I'm probably just being paranoid," I started, and described what I'd seen. When I got back to my seat, I tried to forget my suspicions, having turned them over to an expert. A few minutes later, a flight attendant asked the passengers in row nine how they were doing. Another attendant came down the aisle, looking carefully at both sides.

"We need to de-ice the wings," announced the captain, apologizing for yet another delay. He emerged from the cockpit, walked back to 9-C's row and looked out to examine the wings. The other pilot did the same.

Soon afterward, we learned we were returning to the gate because of "another minor mechanical problem." Absorbed in my book, I hardly paid attention. When I looked up a chapter later, I saw that 9-C was gone. Was he in the bathroom?

We took off, and once at cruising altitude, I walked to the rear to see if he'd changed seats. But he was nowhere. I asked the flight attendant where he was. "We don't know what happens once security gets them. After the shoe-bomber, we're glad to get rid of anyone suspicious."

I felt awful. I didn't mean for 9-C to be taken away. I had probably ruined an innocent traveler's day, not to mention delaying an already late flight. And I hadn't even noticed he'd gone. I vowed not to scare my son; I'd keep the story to myself.

But I couldn't. The head flight attendant asked me to come to the front of the plane. My heart pounded and my cheeks burned; I felt ashamed and afraid. "Thank you for alerting us to that man," he said, smiling. "We all observed him, including our pilots. He seemed depressed, but also very nervous. Security did a background check and decided to question him. If he's OK, we'll compensate him. You did the right thing. Once we're in the air, it's too late."

We were moved to first class, and I wrote an incident report. Later, while waiting for our luggage, I reeled with questions: Had other passengers wondered about 9-C? Where was he now? Would I ever know whether he was a danger? Most important, had I become a racial profiler, bulldozing the roots of that powerful essay that had shaped me in my youth?

Perhaps I had. But I'm not sure I regret it. I can live with the guilt, grief and anger. Even though I lost a part of myself and may have gotten an innocent man jettisoned from the plane, it's not the same world it was half a lifetime ago.