Late last Thursday, University of Pennsylvania economics professor Guido Menzio was settled into his seat aboard an American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse, biding the time before takeoff by working through some complicated math equations. The woman sitting next to him, who had allegedly tried to make small talk as the rest of the plane boarded, passed the flight attendant a note. The flight attendant returned and asked the woman if she was “too sick” to fly, and the pair disappeared. Moments later, the pilot approached Menzio, who has dark hair and an olive complexion, and asked him to deboard the aircraft.
“I thought they were trying to get clues about her illness,” he told The Associated Press in an email. “Instead, they tell me that the woman was concerned that I was a terrorist because I was writing strange things on a pad of paper.”
Menzio explained to officials that he was simply doing math and he was allowed to reboard the plane before it finally took off. (He was able to enjoy an empty seat next to him as well, as his
sick paranoid seatmate was rebooked on a later flight.) But because of the woman’s concern about his “suspicious activity,” the flight was delayed by two hours, which Menzio said could have been prevented if she or a member of the flight crew had just asked him what he was up to.
“Not seeking additional information after reports of ‘suspicious activity’ … is going to create a lot of problems, especially as xenophobic attitudes may be emerging,” Menzio said.
“If you see something, say something,” as the adage goes. However, it’s important to also consider how a person’s biases and intellectual shortcomings might influence their perception of what could be a threat. If everyone alerted the authorities when they saw someone doing something they didn’t understand, well, life would be delayed by a lot more than two hours.
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