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Extremist Pilots

This story appeared the other day...

An American Airlines pilot asked Christians on his flight to identify themselves and suggested the non-Christians discuss the faith with them, the airline said...

American's Flight 34 was headed from Los Angeles to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport on Friday when the pilot asked Christians on board to raise their hands...

The pilot, whose name was not released, told the airline that he then suggested the other passengers use the flight time to talk to the Christians about their faith...

Passenger Amanda Nelligan told WCBS-TV of New York that the pilot called non-Christians "crazy" and that his comments "felt like a threat." She said she and several others aboard were so worried they tried to call relatives on their cell phones before flight attendants assured them they were safe and that people on the ground had been notified about the pilot's comments.

I heard about this from my friend and colleague David Smith, who commented:

Last time an American flight was piloted by religious extremists, we lost the World Trade Center.
Well, let's say the last time we knew that an American Airlines flight was piloted by religious extremists...


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I waited a while before I responded to this post because all my previous attempts, on review, sounded bigoted or "extremist". I regard myself as neither. We'll see if I can hold it together this time.

I have a problem with the comment lumping a religious hypocrite terrorist together with an overly zealous (to my taste), experienced, pilot working for one of the world's safest airlines. Considering that the man at the wheel lost several co-workers, friends, and/or comrades in the same attack to which your friend referred, and may be more openly Christian in response to that loss, I think that the characterization is insensitive at least. Consider that this guy continued to fly at all after September 11, knowing that he is a target -- somewhat heroic, don't you think?

I find many (but not all) supposedly Christion zealots' public rants offensive, sometimes ignorant, but mostly not threatening. I was raised to ignore such as politely as possible. In extremis, I've been rude in response to rudeness, but I hope that these events have been rare.

The pilot's remarks were debatably silly, not at all politically correct, and probably poorly timed, but threatening?

On the other hand, a terrorist's actions against civilians are inherently evil, and if falsely justified on the cynical misappropriation of religious teachings by a political figure, the actions are doubly reprehensible. The real cowards are the suicides, who escape their just punishment in the course of conducting their crimes. It doesn't matter if the terrorist is a crusader, a Shiron, an al Quada (sp?), a McVey, or an atheist. Intimidation by deliberate execution of innocents for political gain is obviously wrong, but not on the same level as an inappropriate and/or goofy remark.

On the whole, I feel less threatened by real religious extremists in the world than I do by the criminal terrorists, and I do understand the distinction. I hate to tell ya, but there's a lot more of the "extremist" faithful [insert choice of sect here] out there, they're all around you, and they'll continue to police your streets, fly your planes, drive your cabs, and service your water systems without a) attempting to convert you b) impeding your progress or c) threatening or harming you or your loved ones in any way.

If you are truly paranoid, you'll go hide in the mountains someplace. Better pick the right mountain though, you never know what type you'll run into up there. A realist might be a little more tolerant of a different point of view, and watch out for the actual threat, and focus threat-reducing activities appropriately.

Illegitimus nil corborundum!


The point isn't whether you or I think the pilot's remarks were threatening. The point is that, according to the account of the incident, multiple passengers took the pilot's remarks as so worrying that they used their cell phones to call friends, and the flight attendants themselves had to intervene to assure them that they were safe and that the airline had been notified of the incident. Clearly this was a serious problem for the people on the flight.

As for finding "Christian zealots... mostly not threatening," let me pose a question: when was the last time you heard of an "atheist zealot" or an "agnostic zealot"? When was the last time someone was shot for their anti-abortion practices?

I don't consider myself paranoid. I know full well that we in the Western world live, on average, the safest, longest lives of any people in history, and yet we -- especially in the US -- obsess about the most trivial of dangers. At the same time, though, I am well aware of the correlation between terrorism on the one hand and religious extremism on the other. The two don't always go together, but I think it would be far easier to find terrorists who are religious extremists than not.

Oops, my criticisms were aimed at the passengers who felt threatened. My use of the pronoun "you" was intended to be more generic, not a personal attack. I'm usually more careful, but I've been feeling a little argumentative lately.

I maintain that the pilot's remarks did not constitute a threat to the passenger's safety, but more a poorly timed, unprofessional, and inappropriately phrased expression of concern for the spiritual well-being of strangers by someone in temporary authority.

I think that killing of pro-abortionists is one of the most hypocritical acts a nominal Christian can perform. These are definitely examples of "Christian" terrorists, and more up-to-date than my crusader example. But, like the al Queda, these people are hypocrites, and traitors to their own professed religion.

It is still a question of degree. I do not care for public exhortations to literally, "convert or be damned" -- which is an attitude that the pilot seemed to approach, but fell short of. I don't care to which nominal denomination the speaker belongs. I try to ignore these, and don't understand the feeling of panic the reporter or other passengers felt. At the level of this particular incident, the remarks still fall somewhere between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

At the level of some public displays and demonstrations, the offense crosses the line to becoming a criminal offense. As a bystander, I'd seek to avoid becoming a victim, as a citizen, I'd help prosecute the perpetrators.

At the level of a terrorist act, I'd do my best to prevent injury to myself, others, and property, and to assist to prosecute the perpetrators and their political masters.

I'm not sure that I could maintain my perspective if I'd been on the flight in question. I'd like to think that I could, even in the face of unreasoned fear on the part of my fellow passengers. In the face of terrorism, the real threat is changing the way we act towards each other. We've got a host of factors pushing us all towards the paranoid. As a society, we should avoid crossing the line from vigilance toward zenophobia. We've also got to make sure that the perps don't cause us to violate our own traditional constitutional protections. If free speech becomes only that speech which no one finds offensive, then we've tipped over the edge of the slope.


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