See Something, Say Something: Safe, Or Unfair?

By Phillip Martin

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Sept. 13, 2011



BOSTON — In the days after the ten-year anniversary of Sept. 11, millions are traveling as usual and security issues remain as they have since 2001. That means individuals are still being singled out for special scrutiny, which continues to raise questions about fairness and safety.
 
After Sept. 11, security changed across many aspects of American life. Try doing something that you did time and time again before that day. In my case, conducting a casual interview on a sidewalk outside a federal got my stopped and questioned by Homeland Security officers two blocks from the interview.
 
For a reporter, being stopped by Homeland Security is a mere inconvenience, but for others, experiences with security in the post 9/11 period have left deeper imprints, including trauma and humiliation.

Vance Gilbert is seen in a publicity still. (Courtesy)

Just ask Vance Gilbert, a local and nationally known folk musician from Arlington, Mass. 

Gilbert performs throughout the U.S. and around the world and thus travels quite frequently. In late August, he boarded a flight at Logan.
 
“I was on my way to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where I was going to coach an Irish fiddle group on their performance and then play a festival and then continue my trip to Colorado,” Gilbert said. “And I was on United Airlines and it was quite an event.”
 
An event that has raised questions about how to respond to that constant refrain played over and over again on airport loudspeakers at Logan and elsewhere, “If you see something say something.”
 
Vance Gilbert, a light-skinned black man with a salt and pepper beard, has what many would describe as an unusual hobby, and in response, someone said something.  
 
“I read a lot of stuff on Polish civil aircraft before 1940 and after 1946. This was an opportunity to sit on an airplane and just read. And we were about to take off and I noticed the flight attendant and someone in the cockpit I think they were pinging each other back and forth,” Gilbert explained.
 
“The plane is still continuing on the take-off apron, and we get out to the take-off point and the plane turns around and heads back to the gate,” Gilbert said.
 
The captain explained over the intercom that a slight issue had come up.
 
“About five or seven minutes later coming down the center of the aircraft are two state police, the bursar that loaded the aircraft and I believe one or two TSA people. They say get off of the aircraft, so I get up and I get off the aircraft, and they take me out into the breezeway and one of the state police asks me, ‘How are you doing today, sir?’ And I reply to him, ‘I have a feeling that I’m not doing as well as I’d like to,’” Gilbert said. 
 
Gilbert was questioned and then asked to go back on the plane to retrieve the book on Polish aircraft.
 
“The policeman said, I see what you’re looking at and its really not a big deal, go back and take your seat and you can continue with your flight. So I go back onto the aircraft and I sit in the seat and no one looks at me for the flight,” Gilbert said.
 
“I look to the right of me and there was a woman, a white woman in a track suit that was sitting in the seat next to me on what was a previously full flight, that seat is now empty. Her book is still in the little slot behind the seat, as is her water bottle. But she’s gone,” Gilbert said.
 
U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz says it’s a tough balance between civil liberties and civil rights and national security.
 
Ortiz works with the FBI and Homeland Security to investigate and prosecute those that threaten the United States of America. And she sympathizes with innocent individuals who have found themselves pulled from airplanes or, in some cases, not allowed to board. She says those situations have to be examined carefully and expediently.
 
“If you receive some report from airline personnel. They think it’s suspicious. In reality, it turns out to be nothing. We should have the tools to investigate quickly, so the situation is completely resolved so that no one is detained or questioned unnecessarily,” Ortiz.
 
But Ortiz argues that, in the post-Sept. 11 period, one cannot be too cautious. 
 
“People in the past quite frankly never reported things because they thought ‘Oh, this isn’t that serious. Maybe that person did leave that backpack but it’s because it’s too heavy. They’re just going to go get a soda. They’re going to the bathroom,‘” Ortiz explains.
 
“You know people who saw things they thought (were) suspicious and were too embarrassed or humiliated to report it later could be kicking themselves for not reporting what turned out to be suspicious and eventually dangerous behavior,” Ortiz said.
 
But what is “suspicious” to one person might seem innocent to another. Reading about 1940s Polish aircraft on a plane would seem odd to some. To others, it might be construed as par for the course flying out of what is inarguably one of America’s intellectual hubs: Boston.
 
But some behavior should set off alarm bells, says George Naccara, Federal Security Director for the TSA under the Department of Homeland Security at Logan.
 
“It could be wearing inappropriate clothes for the season. A bulky look on someone. It could be someone who’s very nervous about their environment; working with a partner.  We look for communication between people. Multiple characteristics and behaviors,” Naccara said.
 
Vance Gilbert does not believe his clothing, his behavior or even the book he was reading was the principal reason he was escorted off a plane weeks before the Sept. 11 ten-year anniversary.
 
“Google a picture of Vance Gilbert and then Google a picture of Osama Bin Laden or anybody else from the Middle East. Look, I’m a brown skinned- guy. Take a look at that and you tell me that combined with looking at a picture of planes from the 1940s is not going to trigger somebody’s panic twenty-three days out from the anniversary of Sept.11,” Gilbert said.   
 
The American Civil Liberties Union argues that, nationwide, a disproportionate number of Arabs and Muslims are on no-fly lists and are detained at airports. United Airlines did not return calls made about this issue. But Homeland Security officials in Massachusetts say they do not conduct racial profiling. Folk musician Vance Gilbert, though detained, was never arrested. But he says that does not mean that the pain and humiliation can be so easily forgotten.  
 
He has met with officials from United Airlines and has requested a formal apology.  Gilbert says he is hopeful that the incident might prove to be instructive for both the airlines and for citizens who are asked, time and time again “If you see something, say something," even after the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.

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