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Last Updated: Monday, 21 August 2006, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
Fear of the unknown
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Airport security check
Fears about safety can mean that rumour is treated like fact
Passengers' complaints about "suspicious" travellers caused a flight to be delayed and two men to be removed. Is this an understandable response or paranoia and prejudice?

What does a suicide bomber look like? What would you do if someone pointed the finger at a passenger catching your plane?

A flight from Malaga to Manchester was delayed this weekend because passengers refused to travel with people they regarded as behaving suspiciously.

Two men, described as wearing heavy clothes and speaking a language claimed to be Arabic, were removed from the flight - but were later cleared to travel, without any suggestion of wrongdoing.

A passenger on the flight, Heath Schofield, explained the suspicions: "It was a return holiday flight, full of people in flip-flops and shorts. There were just two people in the whole crowd who looked like they didn't belong there."

There were just two people in the whole crowd who looked like they didn't belong there
Heath Schofield
Were these legitimate fears or is this group hysteria? How did not wearing flip-flops become a danger sign?

"What's happening informally is that people are applying their own version of terrorist profiling," says psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon.

"It's filtered down to the public that anyone who looks like a Muslim is potentially a terrorist. And what happens in groups is that you get people saying that somebody fits the profile."

Mass hysteria?

This type of airline queue speculation might usually be dismissed, but a combination of heightened security fears and group pressure can turn such fears into a much stronger and more volatile force.

Bag search at airport
What does suspicious behaviour look like?
"Rumour gets raised to the level of fact. People forget that this is just people talking among themselves... and if someone pretends to know something, they get more attention, which in turn makes them seem more authoritative.

"And the group itself becomes an authority and legitimises its own behaviour. It becomes judge and jury. Group pressure can make individuals lose all sense of objectivity."

Once the group has identified somebody as behaving strangely, this can then become self-fulfilling, says Dr Fitzgibbon.

"There's the 'audience effect', which means that if people are aware that they're being looked at, their behaviour can become awkward and self-conscious."

Judgement call

But this doesn't necessarily mean that people are paranoid, says an expert in fear, psychologist Emma Citron. Instead she says that people who are already stressed by safety fears and the pressure of air travel are trying to make sense of the information they've received.

Airplane tail at airport
Afraid of fellow travellers? Perhaps it's you who should leave
"We all gather information and make judgements. You're making a decision - and you want to make sure you're safe. And given all the hype about terror in the media, you do feel that you're under threat, that you are in a dangerous situation, therefore it's not surprising that there are extreme reactions."

But when feelings are running so high, the way information is used becomes distorted: "Not lying as such, but people will invent things, put together a story."

And airports are unlike most other settings. Bristling with security, surrounded by warning signs, with passengers constantly reminded of the threat, with long queues and long looks - it's a pressure cooker for such suspicions.

There are psychological tools which could be useful for improving security, says Dr Citron, such as observing passengers' physical movements. There are types of behaviour that are indicative of threat, she says, such as showing high levels of adrenaline, being in a highly-charged state, exhibiting more body movements and being less relaxed.

Ethical dilemma

But if innocent passengers are being thrown off flights, doesn't it suggest that suspicions can soon descend into a type of mob rule?

In times of psychological stress and anxiety, it's difficult to strike a balance between reason and emotion
Daniel Sokol
Ethicist Daniel Sokol, of Imperial College London, says moral judgement can be distorted by strong emotions - including fear. If passengers are afraid, they can lose their rational sense of weighing up evidence.

"For the arachnophobic, the sight of a tiny spider can override any rational beliefs about its harmlessness. In times of psychological stress and anxiety, it becomes particularly difficult to strike a balance between reason and emotion."

Philosopher and author, Julian Baggini, says that "from the outside these [situations] always appear appalling".

But he says that it's a "sad fact of human nature" that when people feel under threat they often behave differently towards those they perceive as strangers.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

When this story first emerged I felt such fury - the ignorance of so many people is disgusting. Imagine being finger pointed at, accused of terrorism and demanded off a flight. I couldn't imagine it and wouldn't want to either. This is why there is hatred and distrust in our country, we feed off the government and media for all our information, but how much is trust worthy and how much is propaganda to keep a society of fear?
Hannah, London

As a white person who has ethnic minority ancestry I can sympathise with the two "Asian-British" men forced off a plane, but on the other hand, I'd rather be paranoid than dead. If I felt my family might be in danger, I too would have not travelled on the plane with them.
Ysabel, Derbyshire

I agree with Hannah, the press in the UK feed us a daily diet of fear through newspapers radio and Television (it helps to sell papers and increase viewing numbers of TV broadcasts). Sensational reporting is getting worse and worse. The downside of this trend makes a nation paranoid and fearful. Once this happens we all tend to withdraw into our familiar communities and start viewing anyone outside this community as suspicious. The next thing is we are ordering off aeroplanes Muslims because they aren't wearing flip flops and tight shorts! I blame an over zealous media that no-one has the strength to face up to. I wonder if BBC will publish this comment?
Grant Brummer, London

Well, there is a climate of fear and suspicion surrounding people of Arabic and Pakistani origin. All our recent experience of terrorism is associated with these groups. ... If they dress differently, behave differently and appear to have differing allegiances to the general population, and certain figureheads are easily identifiable as having inflammatory and anti-western views, it's not suprising that individuals in the west are making those kinds of judgements about them.
Gini Vinacees, London

On London Underground last week I was concerned about one chap's behaviour. He was fiddling with prayer beads wrapped around the fingers of his right hand, and was clearly agitated. I got off the train at the next stop, "just in case". Was I overreacting? Well, I'm flying to Morocco in two weeks (which means I'll be travelling with Muslims), so I don't believe I was. I used personal instinct, however inaccurate; no one else on the train seemed concerned. I feel it was right for the Malaga flight passengers to be concerned also, but maybe the authorities could have handled the matter better.
David, Eastbourne

Allowing people to force other off of a plane like this will only increase the problems we have. Creating the potential for a racially and religiously segregated society means terrorists have won and will have new recruits. If people don't want to fly with someone they don't have to get on the plane. Let the security services do their job and continue to live your lives as before or the terrorists will win.
Ali, Geneva, Switzerland

Whilst I am totally against bigotry and racism of any sort, I would like to point out that it has been reported that security staff in airports are told to look out for people who stick out from the crowd - agitated bahaviour and inappropriate clothing being mentioned as suspicious. I heard one of the passengers on this plane saying that these two people were clad in layers of heavy clothing on a hot summer's day; just the sort of thing we were told to look out for. People are nervous, and they don't want to die a lingering death in the air. It's not bigotry, it's self preservation. Remember how nervous you felt about Muslim men with rucksacks on the tube last year?
Fred, London

Fred: presumably these two gentlemen dressed in warm clothing were the only ones on the flight intelligent enough to check the weather forecast for Manchester before they boarded the plane.
Lyndon Rosser, Cardiff

Under no circumstances should the right to take off fellow passenger be granted to rest of the passengers. This will create reaction in the Muslim countries to people with Western looks.
Arif Kaleem, Riyadh

It's hard to be over-critical as in these circumstances panic will just take over people's ability to be rational. The real risk isn't with people who are acting suspiciously or are dressed oddly - as terrorists would do everything they could to avoid being detected and would look just like you or me.
Alex, Manchester

I am British of mixed Asian descent, now living in Canada. Being a commercial photographer I sometimes have to travel by air in the US and Canada. On several occasions I have had staff and passengers watch me very suspiciously while I wait reading or drinking coffee, etc. My honest opinion is that these amateur sleuths are just closet racists. I feel it is my duty to retain my dignity and rise above this pettiness. If all the brown people in the western World become targets for petty harrassment the problems of alienation will just grow. Obviously as an ex-Londoner I too look for strange behaviour, but if a brown skinned person is just sitting there calmly minding his or her business please leave them alone.
Chris, Guelph, Canada

Seeing "strangers" seems to be the British or more particularly the English disease in Spain, in some areas, which have been colonised by Brits the sight of a brown or black face is treated as a threat. My husband who's as English as I am, does however look quiet Latin, local people often mistake him for Spanish. We drive an old Spanish reg car and have been stopped by private security guards on occasion to ask what we want in the area, was looking at a property but that put us off. Only today as they waited to get our residencia sorted a British woman said to me 'I we knew had to wait in the line of white people the blacks are all immigrants.' I pointed out that so were we, which did not go down well at all in her mind it seems if your white you cannot be foriegn. I sometimes despair.
Mary, Formentera del Segura, Alicante

It was a bit like this after 7/7, my friend told me a story of a train she was on, a Muslim woman in full traditional dress with a large amount of shopping left her bags to use the bathroom on the train, and while she was gone a man leapt up to search her bags and felt it was totally within his rights to do so. More worryingly, my friend agreed with him. When the lady returned and took (understandable) umbrage at finding him mid-rummage, he told her it was what she should expect from now on if she chose to go out dressed as she was and carrying bags. I thought it was disgusting (and had a bit of a tiff with my friend over it) and this latest event is no different.
Sally, London

It's a bit odd to me that the author of this article and the readers responding below seem to be perplexed by this strange behavior of their fellow travelers. Just what could be making them so cautious about certain passengers traveling with them? Could it be that 99.9% of all terrorists┐ attacks in the last 20 years have been committed by young, Middle Eastern, Muslim males? Nah, that couldn't be it. Now I'm not saying every terrorist in the future is going to fit that profile, but ya might want to look there first before you check Grandma in the wheelchair.
Joshua, Atlanta

All passengers have to go through really rigorous checks before boarding. To summarily decide that these checks are somehow invalid is to introduce an anarchy based on prejudice. The logical conclusion is to do away with all official boarding checks and let passengers check each other. Now that would make air travel interesting...
Tim, Sapporo, Japan

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