When the flight attendant says, “Keep your seat belt fastened,” they mean it, buddy

A flight to Mumbai from Amsterdam on Wednesday had its own personal terror alert and was turned around, by the pilot, for an emergency landing — afterward, 12 passengers were held overnight by Dutch police. Why? The NYT has the scoop:

The pilot of Northwest Flight 42 . . . turned back about 20 minutes into the flight . . . after several passengers were observed passing cell phones back and forth and unfastening their seat belts.

Well, was the fasten seat belt light still on?!? If a man unfastens his seat belt, or passes a cell phone to another passenger, that’s one thing — but if a man with an unfastened belt whips out a phone . . . run.

OK, so lets cut to the important part: what did they look like? I turned to the Star Tribune:

Passengers described the men as between 25 and 35 years old and speaking Urdu, the language commonly spoken in Pakistan and by many of India’s Muslims.

Uh-huh, uh-huh. My suspicions are aroused . . .

Some had beards, and some wore a shalwar kameez, a long shirt and baggy pants commonly worn by South Asian Muslims.

Ah-ha! Beards, huh? You’d think those terrorists would learn to shave every once and a while, to sort of lower their profile, but you can’t teach a terrorist new tricks, apparently.

Anything else? You had me at beards, but wait:

Nitin Patel of Boston, who sat behind the men, told the paper: “I don’t know how close we were, but my gut tells me these people wanted to hijack the airplane.”

Thank God Nitin Patel failed the Air Marshall written exam, or bearded, seat-belt-less passengers on flights around the world would be paying the price.

But even with all that evidence, it turned out to be a false alarm:

Prosecutors said Thursday they found no evidence of a terrorist threat . . . and they are releasing all 12 passengers arrested after the emergency landing.

There is nothing funny about terrorism and there is nothing funny about racism or religious prejudice (yet, somehow, this “incident” is funny . . .)

Dick Cheney recently said that “the terrorists” (or, “Al-Qaeda-types,” as he called them) saw a victory in the Connecticut Democratic primary defeat of Joe Lieberman; Bush, on Tuesday, said that withdrawing troops form Iraq “will send the wrong message to the enemy.”

How about panic (terror, even!) aboard airplanes? Fear and suspicion and anger? Travel disruptions? Could these things possibly be seen as “a victory” by terrorist organizations who have specifically targeted air travel?

Finally:

On Tuesday, a flight to New York from Atlanta was diverted to Charlotte, N.C., after a flight attendant found a bottle of water and then smelled something suspicious on the plane. Officials found nothing hazardous.

Now that sends a message.

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