This Is What Vigilantism Looks Like

Another airplane passenger false alarm:

Seth Stein is used to jetting around the world to create stylish holiday homes for wealthy clients. This means the hip architect is familiar with the irritations of heightened airline security post-9/11. But not even he could have imagined being mistaken for an Islamist terrorist and physically pinned to his seat while aboard an American Airlines flight—especially as he has Jewish origins.

Turns out that one of the other passengers decided to take matters into his own hands.

In Mr Stein’s case, he was pounced on as the crew and other travellers looked on. The drama unfolded less than an hour into the flight. As he settled down with a book and a ginger ale, the father-of-three was grabbed from behind and held in a head-lock.

“This guy just told me his name was Michael Wilk, that he was with the New York Police Department, that I’d been acting suspiciously and should stay calm. I could barely find my voice and couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Mr Stein.

“He went into my pocket and took out my passport and my iPod. All the other passengers were looking concerned.” Eventually, cabin crew explained that the captain had run a security check on Mr Stein after being alerted by the policeman and that this had cleared him. The passenger had been asked to go back to his seat before he had restrained Mr Stein. When the plane arrived in New York, Mr Stein was met by apologetic police officers who offered to fast-track him out of the airport.

Even stranger:

In a twist to the story, Mr Stein has since discovered that there is only one Michael Wilk on the NYPD’s official register of officers, but the man retired 25 years ago. Officials have told the architect that his assailant may work for another law enforcement agency but have refused to say which one.

I’ve written about this kind of thing before.

EDITED TO ADD (10/3): Here’s a man booted off a plane for speaking Tamil into his cellphone.

Posted on October 3, 2006 at 12:42 PM70 Comments


Mark Schuldenfrei October 3, 2006 12:56 PM

Bruce, I’m surprised you did not mention the final paragraph of the story you linked to, where it seems that the name the “policeman” gave was false, and likely his police affiliation was as well.

If that is not a genuine security issue and risk, I’m not sure what is.

Chris S October 3, 2006 1:00 PM

Wouldn’t that qualify as impersonating a police officer? Would it be sufficient to compel disclosure by the airline of the identity of the passenger?

I must confess, I’m rather looking forward to see how this works out.

the third murderer October 3, 2006 1:11 PM

Well….if the assailant was a non-white guy and the victim was a white guy, the incident would be over in a flash….with the lynching of the assailant. It seems to me the KKK days are not too far behind us.

Herman October 3, 2006 2:00 PM

Today a Turk with no weapon, hijacked a plane. To counter this new threat, Airport Security will now have to detain all Turks with no weapons on them…

J.D. Abolins October 3, 2006 2:06 PM

@Michael Schuldenfrei

The last paragraph of the Independent Online story noted, “Officials have told the architect that his assailant [the man using the name “Michael Wilk”] may work for another law enforcement agency but have refused to say which one.

This gets very interesting. The fellow, if the story gave the right name, might NOT have been lying about being an NYC law enforcement officer. (The NYPD is not the only law enforcement agency in the City.)

A quickie search on the Michael Wilk, NY, investigator scored a hit for a 2001 NYC Department of Investigations news release mentioning the name at

“The investigation was conducted by DOI Assistant Commissioner and NYCHA Inspector General Steven A. Pasichow and members of his staff, including Confidential Investigators Bergia

Telesford, Michael Wilk, and Jessica Ross.”

NOTE: This search result does NOT mean that the investigator named in the news release and the “Michael Wilk” of the recent news story are the same person per se. I’m only presenting an example of how there could be people with same name in NYC’s LEAs other than the NYPD.

John Davies October 3, 2006 2:10 PM

From the BBC website:

“We saw a man wearing track-suit bottoms and a hat go to the cockpit door and pause there, thinking”

I can see the profiling databases being updated as we speak.

no one special October 3, 2006 2:20 PM

What’s the grinding sound I hear, could it be the sound of an army of lawyers sharpening their pencils . . . ?

Josh Rubin October 3, 2006 2:25 PM

The assailant said he was “with the New York Police Department” but did not say he was a law enforcement officer. He could be a janitor. This sounds like an assault committed on an aircraft in flight, which I think is a felony. I won’t feel safe until that person is in jail.

To make it worse, he may have been impersonating an officer. The next time I am stopped by a police officer, I will wonder if he is lying.

I wonder if I can get the police report of the incident.

derf October 3, 2006 2:30 PM

Add “any foreign sounding words” to the list of things you can’t say in airports. This can sit next to “bomb”, “knife”, “boxcutter”, and “sharp pointy thing”.

The reason this happens is that deep down, most people understand that the TSA is incapable of actually stopping a terrorist threat.

Nick Lancaster October 3, 2006 2:58 PM

And we’re to believe that there’s no passenger manifest to match a name with a seat assignment?

The airline must know more than they’re willing to share with the public or with Mr. Stein.

And we’re all less safe when police lie about their identity/affiliation, conduct ‘security checks’ of passengers aboard airplanes (unless it is airline policy to conduct such a check if a passenger indicates another as ‘suspicious’), and then vanish once the plane lands.

If “Wilk” showed his ID to the flight crew, then I trust it was something more than a badge, or that the flight crew recorded the number.

That other passengers were cheering is disgusting. If Stein had, in fact, been a terrorist, grabbing him from behind could possibly be the stupidest thing one could do. We are not thinking, we’re simply acting out of fear.

NZruss October 3, 2006 2:58 PM

Things are so bad, that I know you wont be allowed to fly as a passenger if you have this picture on your tee-shirt.

And if you got ejected, most people would say “what was he thinking, wearing a picture of a cartoon bomb, he should have known better”.

As someone above pointed out, it is like the witch hunt frenzy of the 1400’s. And I’d certainly be way to chicken to wear a tee-shirt with a picture of a broom-stick on it during that time!

Historian October 3, 2006 3:40 PM

@NZruss Just to keep things straight, the witch hunts were in the 1600s. Errors breed.

Sven Dakota October 3, 2006 4:02 PM

@ Darth Regan

Vat da heck iss rong wit Nort Dakota?

Hoo ar U tu pe sayin vat iss Inklesh?

Matthew Skala October 3, 2006 4:05 PM

Historian: there’s been more than one round of “witch hunts”, especially if you use the phrase in its current meaning, but even if you don’t. Several major witch hunts are currently in progress, and many others have happened since the 1600s.

Anonymous October 3, 2006 4:21 PM

I hate the over-litigation of our society, but this is one of those cases where I’d love to see this guy sue the living daylights out of the airline and the guy responsible for this. The only thing scarier than a terrorist threat to a company is a lawsuit with legs.

I’d also like to see the guy prosecuted, but it scares me to think what would happen if “I thought someone was a terrorist because insert lame reason here” became a get-out-of-guilty free card.

Tom Grant October 3, 2006 4:22 PM

So we have “Air Marshalls” riding International flights bound for the US who are traveling incognito, perhaps using “credentials” of retired officers? Sounds about right to me.

If so, would these folks have jurisdiction when the plane is on the ground in a foreign country?

One could, I suppose, make a case that if the Marshall waited too long to act (say until the plane has crossed into US airspace) that a potential hijacking could have already occurred. This would give cause to act immediately, before the plane is airborne.

And one supposes that action (even if mistakes are made) is preferrable to inaction?

Even if this was a “legit” enforcement effort, it seems like the wrong way to be trying to secure a flight. Why not ask the stewardess to contact the flight crew and involve other security personnel in the airport to empty the plane and review the suspects credentials again?

Fear…it’s all we have to be afraid of.

nzruss October 3, 2006 4:29 PM

@ historian:

From Wikipedia:
“Although Europe’s witch-frenzy did not begin until the late 1400s… ”


“At the height of the Great Hunt (1567–1640) one half of all witchcraft cases…. ”

If you know wikipedia to be factually incorrect, you will be doing us all a service by correcting it. (please reference as you go)


Stefan Wagner October 3, 2006 4:41 PM

@anonymous: “A modern version of the witch trials.” is a contradiction in itself.

My definition-books say, the modern times are defined by overcoming witch believe and irrationalism.

We left the modern trial long ago.

Justin October 3, 2006 5:21 PM

What horrifies me about this story, beyond the obvious, is that if this happened to me, I’d be so pissed off that I might then become an actual problem on the flight. I’d be yelling at the guy who headlocked me, at the air crew for not intervening, and at everyone for being such paranoid dinks that they just calmly watched.

Dom De Vitto October 3, 2006 5:41 PM

This is why in the UK we just shoot them in the head, 7 times, before they get a chance to sue. Our police quickly release a pre-canned statement about the man behaving suspiciously, jumping over barriers, carrying bags and other stuff that would obviously require an immediate death sentence, if it happened to be true.

A headlock seems quite rational in retrospect, even if the “official” was a looney without any of that fancy lawer mumbo-jumbo, known as “evidence”.

roy October 3, 2006 6:15 PM

What if the victim had been, for example, a Navy Seal in mufti? He might have killed his assailant. Then which side would the passengers take?

Vigilanteeism is no laughing matter.

Infrequent Flyer October 3, 2006 6:39 PM

The link to the article has expired, unless your are willing to pay; Here’s another:

I find it interesting that the airline involved expressed regret but denied liability. Basically, their stance is that they are not responsible for the actions of passengers who behave unreasonably on the flight “… there may be a limit to what our crews can do to improve behaviour that is perceived as a nuisance.”

In some ways, this seems reasonable, but in others it is definitely not. If the passenger who headlocked Mr Stein was clearly drunk, then the airline staff would have applied plastic cuffs to restrain him (I believe there are many precedents for this). Instead, they did nothing to take control of the situation even though a serious assault was taking place.

Another quote from above URL:
“Earlier this month, a plane from London to Washington DC made an emergency landing, escorted by fighters, after passengers alerted crew to the behaviour of a female traveller. It later emerged she had suffered a panic attack. And in August, two innocent Asian students were escorted off a flight from Malaga to Manchester because other passengers thought they were terrorists.”

Judging from the above quote, it appears that airlines have sometimes been willing to act on the unfounded suspicions of passengers.

Who is in charge of an aircraft when it is flight?

Either the captain or the mob of passengers.

Andre LePlume October 3, 2006 8:21 PM

In related news, George Hamilton to become spokesman for NetJets, effective immediately.

Lis Riba October 3, 2006 9:17 PM

Has anybody actually tracked how many such incidents have happened since the foiling of the “liquid bomb” plot in mid-August?

How many Type I and Type II security errors have there been? How many which actually involved diverting the plane or forcing a passenger off to find another flight? That kind of thing.

Neal October 3, 2006 9:32 PM

This makes for a great new terrorist ploy – board the plane and point a finger of suspiction at an innocent but middle eastern looking passenger. While the flight crew, marshals, and passengers are absorbed in detaining this person the terrorist gains access to vital areas of the plane.

the other Greg October 3, 2006 10:48 PM

“Eventually, cabin crew explained that the captain had run a security check on Mr Stein after being alerted by the policeman and that this had cleared him. The passenger had been asked to go back to his seat before he had restrained Mr Stein.”

Please note the second sentence. Assuming the report is accurate as to sequence of events, and as to the sheepish actions of crew and NY police officers, “Wilk” first voiced his suspicions to crew, Stein had been cleared by “security check”, and “Wilk” had been told to go sit down… then, he assailed Stein.

And the ‘Air Marshal’, if there was one aboard, failed to respond to an obvious terrorist activity in progress.

iworms October 3, 2006 11:41 PM

My high school History teacher said, years ago, “Frustration turns people into terrorists.”

Which I think is generally true.

Which is exactly what each of these innocent victims experience.

another nobody, like that other nobody above October 4, 2006 12:36 AM

“But with this impending lawsuit, it looks like it will be the airlines and their passengers who suffer — unless they make an uncompromising stand for their rights. For now, all the customers of these airlines will have not only the spectre of terrorism to worry about when they board a flight, but also the threat of a lawsuit when they land if they act against such a perceived threat!”

Any comments?

moz October 4, 2006 1:37 AM

@another nobody, like that other nobody above

Errr.. you have identified a terrorist on board an aircraft; having left them for over an hour into the flight, you decide to act. Do you a) speak quietly with the crew and and let them carry out a coordinated action with any air marshalls on board etc. or b) grab them by the neck encouraging them to trigger the bomb they are carrying?

Or another way vigilante 99.99% == idiot. Hint; it’s not because people want criminals to get away that vigilantes have long been discouraged.

Owen Blacker October 4, 2006 3:32 AM

Sweet Jesus you guys need to chill out over there. Exactly how many planes have been hijacked in the US in the last five years? Would that be none, perchance?

Security good, paranoia and vigilantism ++ungood.

John Phillips October 4, 2006 5:05 AM

Well he was obviously asking for it, after all he was using an IPOd, obviously a device foreign to Americans and to top it off he went to the toilet, what did he expect.

Mind, if the assaulter had simply said that he attacked him becuase his IPod was irritating him I would have had some sympathy with the attacker as I hate sitting close to someone using one of them on loud with that constant tinny irritation.

Olly October 4, 2006 5:46 AM

“That gave me a warning that, OK this is pretty powerful. If he can take over the (public address) system like this,” Walker said.

So, that’ll be the public address system which is usually a phone on the wall by the toilets? Yep – you’d have to be pretty powerful to take that over!

wm October 4, 2006 6:02 AM

From the article about a passenger speaking Tamil:

“He told officials that he would not speak in a foreign language on his cell phone at an airport in the future.”

Welcome to the land of the free…

nzruss October 4, 2006 10:28 AM

From that latest on that Turkish Hijacker (click my name for the link):
“The man burst into the cockpit and said, ‘There’s two of us,'” leading authorities initially to believe the man was not acting alone, said an Italian security official based in Brindisi.

“There was only one hijacker. He surrendered to authorities at the airport,” the official said by telephone.

I guess imaginary friends will be banned now.

Peter October 4, 2006 1:00 PM

If someone put me in a headlock, I’d pull a ball point pen out of my shirt pocket and stab them in their arms until they let go. Then, I’d stab them in the face – preferably the eyes.

And when the plane landed, I’d sue the pants off the airline for permitting muggings like this. Whoever this Michale Wilk is, he should be on trial for assault and battery, and the entire American Airlines flight crew as his accomplices.

civilian number twelve October 4, 2006 1:56 PM

It is obvious that architects should immediately be banned from all flights, international and domestic. As everyone knows, they’re a shifty group of buttinskies who do nothing except try to make the world a more attractive, easier to occupy place. They pose a threat to the airline business as we know it.

justice October 4, 2006 4:49 PM

I am from South India and one day my father and I were sitting in a mall waiting for my wife, my mother, and my sister to finish shopping. We were talking in our native language of Kannada, and were talking pretty fast. What is interesting is that the word “allah” in our language means “right?”…as in “you parked the car near the mall entrance, right?”. So in a period of a few minutes, I must have said “allah” at least ten times. There was this 40-ish gentleman sitting on the bench next to us, and you could see he was becoming visibly stressed. I then told my father that we should switch to English, since this guy was probably thinking we are terrorists planning to bomb the mall or something. I’ve noticed this when talking to my wife as well…when we are talking, we’ll use the word “allah” regularly. I can imagine she and I having a conversation on a plane and getting booted off.

I M Driving October 4, 2006 5:42 PM

Vigilanism is a symptom not the disease.

When “the authorities” consistently fail to protect the populace from the miscreants among them or are perceived to have consistently failed, vigilantes will arise as they have though history.

Published statistics say that less than 2% of flights have air marshalls aboard. A similar proportion of US airline pilots are armed; I have seen no stats on armed pilots from other nations.

How many highjacking/bombing incidents have been thwarted by air marshalls or armed pilots? How many have been thwarted by passengers armed only those stupid little plastic trays?

I haven’t been keeping score, but I have heard of exacly zero such incidents handled by air marshalls or armed pilots and several handled by the passengers. That said, the record of passengers in doing so is definitely not without blemish.

If it is the case that “the authorities” are failing to provide security, is it so unreasonable that people feel it necessary to provide it for themselves?

The real answer to this is less “security theater” and better security. Everyone who has thought about the problem knows the TSA is providing entertainment (“irritainment” ? They surely do irritate me and they are sometimes entertaining…) rather than security. People feel as though they are on their own, as indeed they are.

no one special October 4, 2006 11:37 PM

ac, I always assumed that Toby Keith “Beer for My Horses” song was about the early days of the Texas Rangers.

That said, at various points in the late 19th and early 20th century some Rangers did employ torture and conducted summary executions. Not a good thing, but it was at least nominally sanctioned by the state and therefore not exactly vigilantism.

Roger October 5, 2006 3:04 AM

Certainly pretty bizarre, and I hope this “Wilk” gets prosecuted for assault and battery.

Just one observation that everyone seems to have glossed over: Wilks claimed to be a police officer [1], and apparently showed some ID to support that claim. If it is true, then Wilk is technically not a vigilante, but a very over enthusiastic police officer with very poor judgement who is going to face a rather stern disciplinary hearing, probably followed by either sacking, or permanent transfer to duties that do not bring him into contact with the public.

On the other hand, if it is not true, then “Wilk” not only compounded his assault by impersonating a police officer, but CAME PREPARED to do so. This suggests that his motives might be more sinister than simple idiocy. Since he rummaged through the victim’s possessions, he might even be a common (but clever) thief! At any rate I hope the matter is properly investigated.

  1. To complicate matters, he claimed to be a NYPD cop. IANAL but to the best of my knowledge NYPD cops have no jurisdiction on planes half way across the Atlantic. Further it is generally only an offence to impersonate a police officer of the jurisdiction in which the event occurs.

M Dundas October 5, 2006 9:10 AM

That situation could have gotten way out of hand. A few of my colleages and myself are well trained in hand to hand combat ( a couple of colleages do it for a living). I myself am trained. If he had grabbed one of them, I’d hope he knows what he is doing because win or loose he would have been in for a surprise. How do I know he is a police officer? Because he ‘says’ he is. I wouldn’t give that any weight at all. He may be a police officer, but I question if his elevator stops at all floors.

dan October 5, 2006 12:52 PM

It’s not surprising that vigilantism is cropping up on planes now that so much behavior is classed as potential terrorist activity. Take the link below, for example, where an American Airlines pilot threatened to divert the plane because two men engaged in the hostile act of… kissing each other.

Flight crews now have more power than real law enforcement, with much less training or oversight. If you’re on a plane, concepts such as probable cause, miranda rights, habeas corpus, etc., do not exist, and the airline itself is judge, jury and executioner. It’s only a matter of time before a flight crew takes an action that the majority of the passengers disagree with, and there’s a riot.

Gendarme October 5, 2006 8:28 PM

Re the Tamil phone guy: “He had a perfectly innocent explanation that all added up.” — Bob Parker, airport spokesman

Not only is speaking a foreign language grounds for suspicion, but it seems people are guilty until proven innocent.

What would have been done to the ‘suspect’ if he hadn’t had a perfectly innocent explanation that all added up, I wonder? Torture in ‘gitmo’ until he revealed the names, addresses, and batting averages of his sporting contacts?

Welcome back McCarthy, we have missed you.

Genarme October 5, 2006 8:32 PM

Oh! I know! We can blame the terrists!

“The terrorists have won”, because so many people are acting dumb!

Gendarme October 5, 2006 10:53 PM

@jojo: “Is it possible to break out of a sitting headlock in this scenario?”

Maybe Jackie Chan can do it.

The main difficulty in this situation is lack of maneouvering room, but remember that that counts against the attacker as well.

You would start by grabbing the restraint with both hands and pulling down. Then either try to lift yourself up vertically with your legs under you, standing on the seat, so that the restraining force falls on your shoulders rather than your throat; or (less viable due to seat in front) I think maybe you can try swinging your legs up over your head and flip backwards, feet-first onto your assailant — they usually can’t exert enough force to keep their grip under this amount of load and disturbance. If they restrain with their hands/arms, sometimes you can bite them once you loosen their grip a little. Gnash. Once they have slipped, quickly bring you arm(s) up right next to your neck — as if you were going to scratch your neck, perhaps — to guard against the next attack. G’luck. Might be something worth practicing and researching.

Gendarme October 5, 2006 11:09 PM

@Roger: “only an offence to impersonate a police officer of the jurisdiction”.

The article didn’t say that he ‘stopped’ his pretense at being a police officer when the flight landed in NY — so (perhaps only after leaving the airport) there he apparently continued his ‘ruse’, if he was in fact not a fully-sanctioned NYPD officer. Your comment would be applicable if he had chosen a jurisdiction different to his destination … but it does bear on the fact that he had no special ‘power of arrest’ in the air over the Atlantic. There, the Captain and the airline get to set the rules .. and the passengers follow them or face government-backed legal proceedings on the ground later.

In this case, the airline apparently didn’t give a damn, so I would recommend boycotting that airline for good.

Bern October 15, 2006 10:27 AM

So, the NYC police apologized and fast tracked Stein out of the airport. They would never do that if Wilk is a regular civilian. Wilk must have clout in NY law enforcement.

Stein was removed nicely and quickly from the airport so he would not have the time to think of filing a complaint for this assault. They’re also hoping that the VIP service prevents a lawsuit.

Cowboy-Bob October 16, 2006 1:00 PM

Some Americans appear to love fascism and playing cop and are in their element in a police-state environment.

But how much do they love it? The same as the South loved segregation? If that is the case, then lawsuits will determine how much they love it. When they begin paying through the nose for their animalistic behavior, then we will probably find that they only like it so much. Segregation was defeated not so much with high-profile protests, but quietly – one lawsuit at a time. So it will be with fascists elements and police-state fans in our society. Sue them until they bleed.

Magnus Edwards October 19, 2006 2:02 AM

Two weeks ago when in Iran I flew from Tehran to Shiraz. Me and my travelling companion were the only ones speaking English. Luckily we weren’t arrested for not speaking Farsi.

Connor MacManus March 29, 2007 10:22 PM

There is bad vigilantism (lone wolves, angry red necks, lynch mobs), no doubt. But there is room for what I call intelligent vigilantism, or taking out the truly evil.

“And shepherds we shall be, for thee my Lord for thee, Power hath descended forth from thy hand, that our feet may swiftly carry out thy command, we shall flow a river forth to thee, and teeming with souls shall it ever be. In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti.”

Anonymous April 26, 2007 8:42 AM

If I ever visit the USA, I’ll have to be sure not to speak any of my native Finnish over the telephone. I’d hate to be imprisoned in Guantanamo because a policeman heard me speaking a language he didn’t understand.

elissaF April 26, 2007 10:19 PM

Can you remove the note by ThirdMurderer? I think it’s virulently racist and creates an inhospitable environment.

Osama November 2, 2007 10:43 AM

I’m an Arab and my name is Osama, I regularly speak Arabic on the phone, read and listen to the Quran, and pray.

I would never think of visiting the US. Americans are so paranoid and sometimes even dumb.

Irish Architect November 22, 2007 7:42 PM

I hope Seth Stein is getting free flights for life from American Airlines..he deserves it.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.