Unfriendly Skies

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In the latest episode of Sky Wars, an American Airlines flight attendant got belligerent with the mother of a toddler, wresting a stroller away from the woman and hitting her child in the process. This incident follows on the heels of the disgraceful United Airlines debacle, wherein a paying customer was seriously injured while being dragged off a plane. These days, the fear of a terrorist commandeering an aircraft has been dwarfed by  fear of the very airline employees who are supposed to keep us safe.

To be fair, being a flight attendant has become one of the less glamorous jobs in the world. In ever more cramped quarters, these airline personnel are expected to see to the needs of about 200 travelers, all the while making sure everyone is safe. And in fact, most altercations on airplanes are between passengers, not between customers and crew. So add to the flight attendant job description the need to be airplane referee, cabin librarian shushing loud passengers, and ersatz bartender cutting off belligerent drunks.

Air travel used to be a glamorous luxury. Passengers would be treated to full meals served by smartly dressed flight attendants in roomy airplane cabins. Travelers never felt the need to board a plane with more than a briefcase or handbag in tow. Unfortunately, this more civilized travel experience was costly, and few normal people could afford to fly.

As airlines stepped up the competition, ticket prices came down and inconveniences went up. Many of the formerly complimentary perks of flying have been removed. Now most airlines charge for checked bags and in-flight entertainment, for instance. And meal service for anyone not traveling in first class is nonexistent. Meanwhile, in desperate measures to cut costs, airlines keep squeezing in more seats, leaving less aisle space and leg room for already disgruntled passengers.

All of this is a recipe for disaster. With more passengers per square inch and everyone dragging aboard roller bags to avoid baggage fees, the potential for conflict and flight attendant fatigue has gone way up. On a recent flight, I witnessed a passenger holding up the boarding process for a good 20 minutes as he stood in the aisle trying to find space in the overhead bins for his oversized bag – all the while manhandling other passengers’ luggage and generally causing a ruckus. The Southwest flight attendants deserve awards for patience in dealing with this guy in a courteous and helpful manner.

The other reason for short tempers on the part of passengers is that, prior to boarding,  they have just suffered the hassle and indignity of having themselves and their possessions searched by TSA agents in this post-9/11 world. I myself have had my hands test positive for gun or explosives residue and been physically searched and manhandled at security. Whenever my husband gets a pat down, the TSA agent asks him if there are any sensitive parts on his body. He always answers, “Just my genitals.” The agent never finds that amusing.

The litany of travel woes in the world of flying is long: endless lines at security, tiny and cramped airplane cabins, overbooking situations, passengers eating smelly foods brought from home, minuscule airplane bathrooms that smell like the sewage plant, all manner of animals on board, babies crying, passengers watching shows on their laptops at deafening volumes, surly airline personnel.

Still, a method of transportation that can get an American from one coast to the other in less than 6 hours is nothing to sneeze at. It sure beats a tedious train trip or crowded bus ride – or a cross country family car trip with incessant potty stops and whining, “Are we there yet?”

Proportional Response

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a41f726b05591a56da4d18Politicians on both sides of the aisle are praising President Trump’s decision to bomb an airfield in Syria in retaliation for Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons against his own people. The air strike is being called a “proportional response” to the egregious attack on the part of the Assad regime. If anything, it’s significantly less heinous than the wholesale massacre of innocent civilians using a slow and painful method of murder.

While I’m not sure I join the pundits in praising this recent U.S. military action, it has gotten me to thinking about the idea of proportional response. This idea goes back to Biblical times, wherein Jewish law specified the so-called “eye for an eye” administration of justice. What many people don’t realize is that this law was not meant to incite violence but rather to contain it. Therefore, if someone took an eye from you, you were allowed only to go so far as to take an eye from him, not to kill him or his whole family.

In recent history, America has seen a decrease in tolerance for proportional response. Take, for instance, the recent assault on an innocent United Airlines passenger who refused to give up his paid for seat on a flight. Instead of trying to coax the man off the plane, flight attendants called the police to board the plane and forcibly remove him. He was yanked out of his seat, made bloody as his face was banged against the handset, and literally dragged on the floor out of the plane. The entire incident was caught, of course, on cell phone video and has been broadcast all over television and the internet. One would think United – and those officers – would know better.

Yet even with the installation of body cameras on police officers, incidences of  police abuse seem to be increasing. Routine traffic stops and minor infractions, such as illegally selling cigarettes on the street, are met with disproportional and sometimes deadly force. Why?

Certainly there has been a racial component to many instances of police overkill (literally, in the case of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times). But whether dealing with individual suspects, performing house raids in the war on drugs, or even responding to street protests, the police have become increasingly militarized – using armored vehicles, assault weapons and grenades, and often going in guns blazing to deal with ordinary criminals. For instance, a Georgia toddler was severely injured by a flash grenade in a raid on the home of a suspected drug dealer.

The war on drugs itself has been responsible for mass incarceration and the creation of career criminals who, due to Draconian “three strikes “laws, are spending most of their natural lives in prison for minor drug infractions. Meanwhile, we are witnessing an epidemic of people addicted to opioids prescribed by their own doctors. Yet Trump’s new Attorney General Jeff Sessions has shown indications that he wants to ramp up the “war on drugs” that has done so little to reduce crime, addiction, or the proliferation of weapons in our country.

I certainly believe in the right of law enforcement officers to defend themselves from armed criminals and to use SWAT teams in very dangerous, high risk situations. But the normalization of these military tactics and responses is a danger to innocent people who may be swept up in a raid or peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment right to assembly. More importantly, I believe that violence begets violence, whether we are dealing with military conflicts around the world or our own citizens here at home.

Our government, our laws, our military, and our law enforcement agencies should keep in mind the concept of proportional response in dealing with transgressions. They should seek to de-escalate conflict wherever possible. Such policies would increase respect for the men and women entrusted with keeping the peace and keeping us safe.