Airlines Defining Anyone Disruptive as Terrorists

From the Los Angeles Times:

Freeman is one of at least 200 people on flights who have been convicted under the amended law. In most of the cases, there was no evidence that the passengers had attempted to hijack the airplane or physically attack any of the flight crew. Many have simply involved raised voices, foul language and drunken behavior.

Some security experts say the use of the law by airlines and their employees has run amok, criminalizing incidents that did not start out as a threat to public safety, much less an act of terrorism.

In one case, a couple was arrested after an argument with a flight attendant, who claimed the couple was engaged in “overt sexual activity”—an FBI affidavit said the two were “embracing, kissing and acting in a manner that made other passengers uncomfortable.”

EDITED TO ADD (2/2): Blog post showing that the article is a lot more hyperbole than fact. And commentary on the commentary.

Posted on February 2, 2009 at 6:47 AM44 Comments


Ben Franklin February 2, 2009 7:16 AM

It’s just about time to take up arms my fellow Americans. Do you think Bruce would lead us?

Rob February 2, 2009 7:17 AM

Clearly the TSA and airlines are doing their best to assure customers that they are subjects of the government and industrial complex that owns it, rather than citizens of the republic.

“He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” – Benjamin Franklin

And we’re not even getting security for our sacrifices.

Carlos Gomez February 2, 2009 7:21 AM

Generally speaking, none of the behaviour outlined should really be condoned (aside from perhaps kissing and hugging), on an flight. And they weren’t prior to 9/11. However, 9/11 has escalated the severity of these incidents from disruptions to terrorist activities. There is simply no sense of perspective, and a complete lack of common sense.

Al February 2, 2009 7:50 AM

Can anyone defend the “200 convictions” claim with anything specific? I think it’s a made-up number.

Randy February 2, 2009 7:55 AM

After getting a conviction on one of these charges, what district attorney or federal prosecutor goes home and says, “I made the USA safer today?”

And then feels GOOD about it.

Just curious,

Nomen Publicus February 2, 2009 8:24 AM

The real problem this demonstrates is the dramatic lowering of evidence standards in terrorist cases. The police see this and push for a “terrorist” angle whenever they can to simplify prosecution.

Martin February 2, 2009 8:29 AM

Yet the pirates who hijack ships off the coast of Somalia are not classified as terrorists, see:

The article states: ‘Paying a ransom is not illegal under British law, unless it’s to terrorists.’ and ‘If a link was established between the pirates and terrorists it could create serious problems for all parties involved. As one underwriter summed it up, “we’d all be going to jail”.’

(The article ” Who do pirates call to get their cash?” is mainly about what is involved in paying a million or more dollar ransom to pirates on a captured ship, an interesting security problem in itself. How do you deliver that much money to a ship in the middle of the ocean without having it stolen by other pirates or indeed without being stopped by naval patrols.)

bob February 2, 2009 8:34 AM

Power corrupts…

I wonder if all the post-9/11 (govt) BS is simply a way to get people to voluntarily stop flying and therefore make them easier to control by keeping them from moving around and being hard to keep track of.

Clive Robinson February 2, 2009 8:47 AM

200 does sound a bit high I would have expected it to be big news.

However having met some one a few years ago who had been detained on arriving in the US on business and been sent back for not paying a speeding ticket, I would not be overly surprised.

Oh and by the way how are you expected to pay a speeding fine to a small sherifs office when you live in Germany or any other country outside of the USA and it was not you who was doing the speeding because you where not in the country and therfore know nothing about it…

Rusty February 2, 2009 9:34 AM

It seems that the ‘military industrial complex’ now has company, the ‘law enforcement/everyone is a terrorist’ complex.

Reading this story makes me wonder at what point we, the people, will say enough is enough.

Say what you will about the French, at least they take to the streets to show the government their displeasure. What will it take for us docile North Americans to rise up and reclaim our freedoms?

nick February 2, 2009 9:34 AM

Perhaps prosecuting people for terrorism allows you to get more funding for your division? This could just be a case of a broken incentive system.

Davi Ottenheimer February 2, 2009 9:35 AM

“If a link was established between the pirates and terrorists”

Hmm, I thought there was a pretty good link found with the Mumbai incident.

The arms trade industry is certainly intertwined with the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden activity, as evidenced by the Iraqi rocket pads sourced from South Africa. With only a little digging it seems pirate activity around the Horn of Africa would be found related to training and arming of Islamic terrorists.

On the other hand, the last US administration gambled that delaying Somali sovereignty (undermining the warlords and pushing Ethiopia to invade) was the best way to get easy access to their terrorist targets on the Horn. Perhaps they thought the subsequent spike in pirate activity due to destabilization was a reasonable trade-off, or maybe they did not see it coming, or maybe they did not realize the relationship between their ops and the spread of arms/training for terror cells.

Muffin February 2, 2009 9:47 AM


“It seems that the ‘military industrial complex’ now has company, the ‘law enforcement/everyone is a terrorist’ complex.”

That already exists – it’s called the prison-industrial complex.

dragonfrog February 2, 2009 10:04 AM

as Colin Young points out – the woman was never arrested or treated as a terrorist.

The only counts brought against her were:

  • interfering with a flight attendant (for yelling at, throwing her drink at, and threatening the stewardess when her booze supply was cut off)
  • assaulting a minor (for getting drunk and beating her kids)

The second charge was dropped for a guilty plea on the first, but I guess child protective services still found her to be an unfit mother.

The only way either law has changed since 2001 was that the PATRIOT act added the offense of “attempting or conspiring” to interfere with a flight attendant, to the existing crime of succeeding in doing so.

Eadwacer February 2, 2009 10:43 AM

So, the Patriot Act supporters are wrong when they claimed it protected us, and there were actually 200 terrorist attacks on the US since it was signed?

Eric in PDX February 2, 2009 10:47 AM

Heh. I get to fly out of the US for the first time in my life shortly. All of this is enough to give someone an ulcer.

Honestly I won’t worry about it, though it really is hard to keep my mouth shut when I see loads of people tossing harmless water and soft drinks* into a bin that is labled Dangerous'' by somewell meaning” civil employee.

As for the lady getting drunk and arrested, she earned it.

*I supposes it’s debateable wehther or not soft drinks are harmless….

andyinsdca February 2, 2009 10:48 AM

Ric Romero reports “Airlines defining anyone disruptive as terrorists.”

Well, no shiat. Give the aircrew that much power and OF COURSE they’re going to abuse it. That’s what happens. Is anyone REALLY surprised?

Kashmarek February 2, 2009 10:59 AM

Some time back, there was a psychology experiment, where a professor took half of his class and made them prisoners and the other half were guards. The experiement broke down into a situation of significant abuse of the prisoners by the guards. In the modern day airline travel genre, the prisoners are passengers and the the guards are the airline crew (with new found powers since 9/11).

Hugh February 2, 2009 12:29 PM

It is a pity, waste of resources and ineffective control. Kicking somebody out of a plane because you don’t like their behavior or the way they look and later calling the subject a security threat is an example of TSA security theatre.

dragonfrog February 2, 2009 12:34 PM

@ Erin in PDX

It’s true that the woman in this case earned being arrested; probably a good portion of the people allegedly arrested under terrorism laws also earned being arrested too – for something. (I say “allegedly” – the ‘headline’ case here was obviously inaccurate).

The question is whether they have been arrested under the correct law. This is actually a big deal. It is a very important principle that laws should be properly applied.

Someone who has served their time for terrorism, may still legitimately be barred from a whole range of professions, security clearances, etc. But someone who has served their time (or just done their community hours) for arguing too vociferously with a flight attendant, should almost certainly not be subject to the same restrictions.

This is a serious issue, if it is true – this is like the people whose lives are forever harmed by being put on a sex offenders’ registry, for things like urinating outdoors, or possessing nude photos of themselves. It’s a great shame that this is the extent of the “investigative reporting” available.

Alan (2) February 2, 2009 1:46 PM

In Europe, passengers still have some consideration as those who actually pay the airlines’ bills … That may be a point to bear in mind, specially in the current economic context.

On another track (pun alert!), if railways in the US do not rise to the occasion and cash in on this to gain market shares, they really deserve to become extinct.


-- Hypocrits! -- February 2, 2009 1:52 PM

Hugging and kissing is forbidden, but wholesale killing and torturing people in other countries, spying on everybody, etc., is allowed.

DHS RiskGuy February 2, 2009 1:59 PM

@Hugh, @Rob – I am pretty sure TSA wasnt involved in the cases referenced. It’s fine to disagree with TSA policies, but making them a scapegoat for every govt policy that you dont like isnt fair.

pfogg February 2, 2009 2:31 PM

All the behaviors the article says are being labeled ‘terrorism’ are commonly considered rude and annoying, rather than criminal. An airplane is a crowded space in which people are trapped for a couple hours, so rudeness and disruption have to be dealt with, but normally this would involve a quiet word, possibly some kind of small penalty, and yes, even being asked to leave if the plane is still on the ground.

Apparently the best way to deal with the air travel equivalent of using a cell phone in a theater is to invoke anti-terrorism laws. Can people be asked to leave a plane on any other basis? Can penalties be applied on any other basis? I’m thinking the answer to those questions might be ‘no’, at least in practice.

Bryan February 2, 2009 2:57 PM

For those of you missing the point, including the author of the site posted by Colin Young, this isn’t a question of if this woman deserved to be arrested or charged with some crime. The point is that it is a problem if people are being charged as terrorists, or prosecuted in a way that makes the job of the police easier by using legislation intended for fighting actual terrorism, instead of the already existing appropriate laws.

If someone is labeled a terrorist for disorderly conduct simply because it took place on a plane and over 7 years ago there was a well known actual terrorist attack involving planes, this is idiotic.

If they’re not being labeled but “PATRIOT ACT” laws are being used to arrest them because it’s easier than using the correct laws, this is the type of abuse you would expect from a police state.

And of course there’s the continuous lowering of the bar for what defines a terrorist every time a law like that is abused by police.

If the “200” number from the original article is at all real, despite how poor of an example this case may be, you shouldn’t dismiss the other cases without more information about them.

EdT. February 2, 2009 3:07 PM

One thing to remember: it is entirely possible that these people were charged under anti-terrorism statutes, in order to threaten them with such massive penalties (incl. prosecution by military tribunal, “special renditions”, etc. maybe?) that the prosecutor would then be able to offer them a deal (cop to a lesser charge) with incredible leverage (if you don’t plead out, then pack your bags for Club Gitmo!) This is not an uncommon tactic, and of course those pleas count as “convictions” in the continuing War for Public Opinion.


Colin Younh February 2, 2009 3:17 PM

Part of the point of my post (that I didn’t explicitly state) was not to just blindly accept something just because a newspaper printed it. Maybe it’s because I follow travel industry news in particular, but when I first read that story my immediate reaction was “there’s got to be more to this story.” The second time I came across it, I took a few seconds to do some digging in Google, which was enough to tell me that, yes there probably really is more to this story. And, it seems, nobody here is being charged as a terrorist. It’s a case of media hyperbole, rather than power-mad flight crews.

dragonfrog February 2, 2009 4:38 PM

Bryan – I’m afraid you’re the one missing the point The woman was never treated as a terrorist. She was never arrested for or charged with with any terrorist related crimes. She was arrested as a child abuser and flight attendant botherer. She eventually plead guilty to the second charge, and the first was dropped.

The only way in which the PATRIOT act is related to this story is that the law she was convicted under was changed by PATRIOT to include the words “or attempts or conspires to do such an act” (refering to interfering with a flight attendant), where it did not include them before.

You’re right that it’s a serious issue if the wrong laws are being used against unruly passengers. But the LA Times story does not cite such a case; it misinterprets a case in which the laws were applied correctly.

SumDumGuy February 2, 2009 6:17 PM

Seems to me that the PATRIOT act’s change to include “attempts to” (interfere with a flight attendant) are exactly what qualified her for an arrest. Throwing your drink on the floor, and then pointing your finger at an attendant do not seem to be a successful case of “interference” (i.e. neither event caused the attendant to be prevented from her regular duties and none of the testimony presented so far in any of the blogs indicated that the defendant ever disobeyed an order by the attendant).

@Alan (2)
– During the superbowl, in the northeast there was a commercial for the Accela trains that ended by saying they won’t make you take your shoes off, unless you want to. I thought they could have said a lot more, but that’s better than nothing.

stevelaudig February 2, 2009 6:33 PM

hawaii state led the way on this with making acts of domestic violence crimes called “terroristic threatening” but then there’s a lot more stupid things in Hawaii statutes than that. It’s a long list added to each year by the moronic political class that runs the state

Lawrence D'Oliveiro February 3, 2009 12:20 AM

There is good, there is evli—and then there is Terrorism. It’s like terrorism is something badder than bad, transcending normal evil with its superpowers, so that ordinary laws and ordinary law-enforcement institutions aren’t enough to deal with it, we need special super-laws that ride roughshod over normal due-process, implemented by special superhero agencies not subject to the normal checks and balances of our usual police forces.

Get a grip, people! Terrorists are just criminals, no more and no less.

another bruce February 3, 2009 1:43 PM

“edited to add (2/2/): blog post”

i clicked on that link, and the lies therein made me guffaw. i particularly liked two things: the flight attendant reseating a prison guard next to the defendant (of course that isn’t provocative, of course i wouldn’t have tried to gouge his eyes out with my thumbs), and the flight attendant giving the defendant a “red card” after she emerged from the loo. what is this, a soccer game in the air? if i think i’m in the right, you show me a red card in the air at your peril, or on the ground too for that matter.

johnny2bad February 3, 2009 7:19 PM

Wow, what a surprise, the definition of terrorist seems to be ever expanding. Then again perhaps all of this was part of the plan to begin with. Next thing you know if you speak your mind on a blog you might be deemed a terrorist…….uh oh. Added security measures are often deemed necessary, usually poorly executed, and always inversely proportional to our liberties.

Tara June 2, 2009 2:57 AM

Wow, the airlines doesn’t allow public displays of affection, but yet they rehire convicted child molestors? Mind blowing. oh and yes, I know this to be a fact since I’m the child molested by a pilot who was rehired to the same airlines he worked for as a pilot after serving his time.

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