In December 2001, alert passengers on an American Airlines flight thwarted a terrorist attack by “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, and in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, we learned that neighbors had noted suspicious activity at the terrorists’ home but had not reported it for fear of being accused of profiling or of being racist.

This week, a passenger on an American Airlines flight was seated next to a man who was intently focused on “scribblings” she could not decipher, and after repeated attempts to engage him in conversation, she reported behavior she found to be suspicious.

The Washington Post reports:

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, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over. He was wearing navy Diesel jeans and a red Lacoste sweater – a look he would later describe as “simple elegance” – but something about him didn’t seem right to her.

She decided to try out some small talk.

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 of her own.

It turned out that this male passenger was an economist at the University of Pennsylvania named  Guido Menzio and that the scribblings the female passenger had seen were differential equations.

WaPo continues:

[T]his 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, possibly the details of a plot to destroy the dozens of innocent lives aboard American Airlines Flight 3950. She may have felt it her duty to alert the authorities just to be safe. 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.

Yes, math. A differential equation, to be exact.

Had the crew or security members perhaps quickly googled this good-natured, bespectacled passenger before waylaying everyone for several hours, they might have learned that he — Guido Menzio — is a young but decorated Ivy League economist. And that he’s best known for his relatively technical work on search theory, which helped earn him a tenured associate professorship at the University of Pennsylvania as well as stints at Princeton and Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Setting aside the sneering mockery evident in the WaPo article, this incident does raise questions well worth pondering.  For example, both the Bush and Obama administrations have publicized the need for an alert American public to “say something” if they see something suspicious.  The Obama admin partnered with Walmart for a short time in 2010 to push exactly this message.

CNN reported at the time:

“Homeland security starts with hometown security, and each of us plays a critical role in keeping our country and communities safe,” Secretary Janet Napolitano said as she thanked Walmart and the more than 320 stores who joined the national campaign Monday.

Participating stores, eventually including 588 from 27 states, will play a short video message at select checkout locations to remind shoppers to contact local law enforcement to report suspicious activity, said a DHS statement.

“This partnership will help millions of shoppers across the nation identify and report indicators of terrorism, crime and other threats to law enforcement authorities,” Napolitano said.

While short-lived (and much ridiculed), this Obama admin-Walmart partnership embodies the pervasiveness of the “see something, say something” message.  Equally pervasive, however, are the accusations and ridicule associated with anyone who “profiles”; they are xenophobic, racists, bigots, and worse.

While this economist was clearly not a threat, the San Bernardino terrorists were.  One was reported and checked out, one was not.  One person who saw something and said something is being ridiculed and accused of profiling for doing so, the other people who saw something didn’t say anything for fear of being accused of profiling.

How does anyone know when their suspicions are worth reporting . . . and facing the inevitable ridicule and charges of racism inherent in the “profiling” accusation and when they are not worth reporting and thus avoiding public ridicule and shaming?  When national security or our own personal security is at stake, where do we draw the line?  And where should media outlets draw the line in attacking Americans who are doing what they believe to be right in a given set of circumstances?

[Featured image via the Washington Post]