You Can’t Tell a Terrorist By the Cover Of Her Book

One of Sheila’s book titles prompted a airport-security profiling incident in 1986:

Rema Simon, a 23-year-old citizen of Massachusetts, is of French and Lebanese descent. She works in the Massachusetts State Legislature’s Social Law Library. But on the evening of May 1, she was in Ft. Lauderdale, about to end her vacation and take a Delta Airlines flight back to Boston.

Having passed the usual security check, Simon was on board, waiting for the plane to take off and reading a book, “Palestine Is, but Not in Jordan.” Looking up, she saw a man “carrying a walkie-talkie. He said, ‘Miss, could you please come with me? I have to talk to you.’ ” She followed him off the plane. “We stood outside the door of the aircraft,” she said. “Several flight attendants and airline or airport personnel stood around us.”

The man from Delta Airlines told Simon that some passengers were concerned about what she was reading. He took the book, leafed through it, gave it back, checked her identity to see whether it matched the name on her ticket and, a Delta spokesman, told me, “did a couple of other checks we can’t tell you about. It’s a matter of security.”

Before letting Simon back on the plane, the man with the walkie-talkie told her to put the book in her bag when she took her seat. She remembers his saying about the book, “This is a sensitive subject at airports.”

The young woman was quite upset at having been led off the plane as a person of suspicion, interrogated and then told to conceal her book for the rest of her journey: “I felt embarrassed, intimidated and quite shaken.” And all because of “the title of a book that I happened to be reading.”

There is no evidence that Rema Simon’s interrogator knew that she was an Arab American. As her sister, Linda, told me, “Rema could be taken for being Greek or Italian.” What singled her out was her choice of reading matter. At least one passenger had insisted to Delta personnel that he be assured the young woman reading “Palestine Is, but Not in Jordan” was not a potential terrorist. The apprehensive passenger also told a Delta agent that he was afraid the book was about Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Actually, “Palestine Is, but Not in Jordan” — written by Sheila Ryan and Muhammad Hallaj and published by the Association of Arab-American University Graduates Press — is not a call to violence. It’s a rebuttal, on historical grounds, to the assertion by many Israelis and American Jews, by no means all, that the Palestinians do not need a state of their own since they already have one in Jordan. One of the book’s more notable lines is King Hussein’s rather poignant comment that “Jordan isn’t a vacant lot.”

From Atlanta, Delta headquarters, one of its spokesmen, Bill Berry, told me that the airline has no apologies to make for what happened to Simon. “We will do whatever we feel is necessary,” he said, “to maintain the security of the airplane. Whenever a passenger comes to us with a question about another passenger, we will check it out.”

I asked him whether he would advise me and other future passengers to be careful as to what books we bring aboard.

“When you agree to go on an airplane,” he said, “you agree to put yourself under a total security check. What happened to that young woman could happen again.”

Meanwhile, Arab Americans point out, not only books can trigger the special attention of airport personnel. During a May 8 interview on Philadelphia’s WPVI-TV, a security officer at that city’s International Airport noted that passengers “who are Arabic-looking” are stopped and searched.

A Tunisian student coming here on a Fulbright Fellowship was stopped at Kennedy Airport and scrutinized for 2 1/2 hours. He was, after all, carrying Arabic-language newspapers, and the security forces wanted to know why.

A growing number of Arab Americans are becoming curious about how it was possible for Japanese Americans to have been herded into concentration camps during the Second World War. It is not an entirely paranoid reaction.

But what happened to Rema Simon might well concern anyone who travels on planes and reads books. You don’t have to be an Arab, or “look” like an Arab, to be considered a potential terrorist.

I know a young Reform rabbi who drew much hostility and suspicion from a fellow passenger because she was reading a book of medieval Arabic poetry. But that was on the subway, where they don’t even have metal detectors. Yet.

— From “You Can’t Tell a Terrorist By the Cover Of Her Book”, by Nat Hentoff, The Washington Post, June 21, 1986, Saturday, Final Edition, First Section; A23

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