❝ On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man — with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent — boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.
Or so dozens of unsuspecting passengers thought.
❝ The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate…looked him over…something about him didn’t seem right to her…
Is Syracuse home? She asked.
No, he replied curtly.
He similarly deflected further questions. He appeared laser-focused — perhaps too laser-focused — on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.
❝ Rebuffed, the woman began reading her book. Or pretending to read, anyway. Shortly after boarding had finished, she flagged down a flight attendant and handed that crew-member a note…
Then the passengers waited, and waited, and waited for the flight to take off. After they’d sat on the tarmac for about half an hour, the flight attendant approached the female passenger again and asked if she now felt okay to fly, or if she was “too sick.”…American Airlines flight 3950 remained grounded.
Then, for unknown reasons, the plane turned around and headed back to the gate. The woman was soon escorted off the plane…The wait continued.
Finally the pilot came by, and approached the real culprit behind the delay: that darkly-complected foreign man. He was now escorted off the plane, too, and taken to meet some sort of agent…
❝ And then the big reveal: The woman wasn’t really sick at all! Instead this quick-thinking traveler had Seen Something, and so she had Said Something.
That Something she’d seen had been her seatmate’s cryptic notes, scrawled in a script she didn’t recognize. Maybe it was code, or some foreign lettering…The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.
❝ The curly-haired man laughed.
He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or another foreign language, or even some special secret terrorist code. They were math…A differential equation, to be exact…
❝ Guido Menzio showed the authorities his calculations and was allowed to return to his seat, he told me by email. He said the pilot seemed embarrassed. Soon after, the flight finally took off, more than two hours after its scheduled departure time for what would be just a 41-minute trip in the air, according to flight-tracking data.
The woman never reboarded to the flight.
❝ Menzio for his part says he was “treated respectfully throughout,” though he remains baffled and frustrated by a “broken system that does not collect information efficiently.” He is troubled by the ignorance of his fellow passenger, as well as “A security protocol that is too rigid – in the sense that once the whistle is blown everything stops without checks – and relies on the input of people who may be completely clueless.”
I wonder what would have happened if the young economist constructing exactly the same equations was of Middle Eastern ethnicity and perhaps (gasp) a Muslim? Would American Airlines have shown as much reason over a 2-hour delay? Would he have been allowed to return to his flight?
The two questions we get to examine most often about American politics are (1) are people simply ignorant or (2) are they stupid?