Recently by Michael Roberts: Michael Going Back to Work

Most readers, I hope, will recall the incident last month in Memphis in which the crew of a commercial flight bound for Charlotte, N.C. refused to fly until two passengers were removed from the aircraft. The passengers were Muslim scholars attempting to travel to an Islamic conference focused this year on the topic of Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims in the U.S.

Those are still pretty much the only hard facts that have been released to the public as of this writing — plenty to incite the typical torrent of speculation, commentary, blathering idiotic bigotry, hurt feelings, and late night comedy routines. Yeah, it's great fun, but let's be honest and fair: so far, unless we're tangibly connected to the event in some official way, none of us has enough information to draw upon in order to frame a meaningful conclusion or comment on the situation.

It would be especially imprudent and unprofessional for me, as a pilot, to indict the crew based on the data currently available. The media and other rumor mills have reported that the flight pushed off the gate and then returned because the crew was unwilling to continue with the two men on board. That no sound justification has been publicly given for this does not necessarily indicate that such justification does not exist. The pilots (or, as the media usually call them, the pilot) would have been sealed up on the flight deck in front of a locked, reinforced, terrorist-proof door when they made the decision to return to the gate. Whatever prompted their decision presumably happened in the cabin on the other side of that door as they were taxiing out to the runway. Pilots must rely on the cabin crew to keep them apprised of what's going on back there and make the best decisions they can based on that information. The public has been told nothing about any communications along such lines. So, for now at least, we don't know what we don't know.

It has also been reported that Delta agents spoke with the flight crew for over half an hour when they returned to the gate and even apologized to the two men when the pilots insisted upon ejecting them from the flight. On the surface, this might cast an understandable cloud of doubt over the crew's actions. But I speak from personal experience and a solid familiarity with the stories of numerous colleagues when I say — difficult as it may be to fathom — that unsuspecting pilots are often met with considerable resistance when they decide to remove a threatening or problematic passenger from their plane. Many crews have made the mistake of contacting the airline and asking for a gate agent or supervisor to handle a belligerent drunk, an unstable lunatic threatening violence when asked to turn his phone off or buckle his seat belt, or some other superstar who just has to ruin it for everybody. I was shocked myself when I discovered that some airline support agents, managers, etc. seem completely deaf to the sound of a pilot's voice calling for the removal of a threatening passenger or asking for police assistance, etc. They'll go back and talk with the individual in question themselves, then return and say something like, "Okay, I got her to turn her phone off. She says she hasn't slept and she's going to her father's funeral and she's really upset but she's sorry and it won't happen again. Just don't serve her any more alcohol and I think she'll be alright…"

Then we say, "Yeah but, um, she broke the flight attendant's nose."

"I know, I know," they mutter, shuffling their feet a bit and trying to muster a sympathetic expression. "But I don't think we'll be able to find you another one in time to avoid a late departure." Then, to the bleeding victim, they say, "Hold pressure right there, like this. Keep your head tilted back. It doesn't look that bad. You can hold up till you get to Guadalajara, right? Put some ice on it at the hotel tonight — you'll be fine…"

Okay, maybe I'm embellishing the case a little. The point is pilots can have a hard time finding someone to take an unruly passenger off their hands. Very few of us, I hope, will give in once the decision has been made, but it's a big deal to deny service to a paying customer and a big responsibility (and potential liability) to those involved. Such cases are the exception and not the rule, of course. Still, it happens a lot more than one would expect in a terror-stricken, post-9/11 world. Besides, absent the ideal solution of a legitimate, professional security division, this kind of situation is really outside the airline's scope of operational expertise. Fellow pilots, here's my advice if you need real help in the overly regulated and litigious chaos of the system in which we work — forget the company and call the control tower directly for law enforcement assistance. They'll send the fuzz right out without questioning your judgment or prerogative as Pilot-in-Command. Remove the threat now. Sort out the details, ideological conundrums, and conflicts of interest later.

So, not to belabor the point, the bottom line is there may be a lot more to this story in Memphis than any of us has been told so far. Anyway, enough of that — there's something else I'd like to discuss.

My Opinion

(You didn't really think was going to keep it to myself, did you?)

Notwithstanding the facts, known and unknown, the word on the street is the Captain — presumed by many accounts to be the angry conservative Christian redneck type — booted the two men off the plane for no better reason than his personal contempt of the peculiar way they were dressed, which clearly identified them as Muslims and hence a de facto terrorist threat. Other versions indicate that it was not the Captain, but some of the passengers who were uncomfortable flying with the two men on board. The Captain supposedly felt that the mass consternation resulting from the clerics' disruptive presence constituted a legitimate breach of safety sufficient to have them removed to calm the turbulent atmosphere in the cabin.

I say without hesitation that if such rumors prove true, it would indeed be a classic example of your standard, garden variety ignorant discrimination. If it is as it appears in the public eye, the Captain at the very least exhibited a foolish, costly, and hurtful lapse of judgment. He stands a good chance of losing his job, but the pilots union will get it back for him after some rehabilitative sensitivity training. Everyone else at the airline will also be subjected to this reeducation. The company will settle with the two men out of court under undisclosed terms and the public will never know exactly what happened. By then few will remember or care that much about the story anyway. Life goes on.

Again, though, who knows what really happened?

If we turn our attention to the public chatter surrounding the event, however, many things are laid bare in stark detail — not about the thing with the two Muslims in Memphis, but about people in general. It's a grim and painful picture, and all too predictable and commonplace. This is the real story in my opinion and few, if any, are giving it the attention it warrants.

I refer to the perspectives revealed in comments like the following, drawn mostly from across the Internet and conversations in airports, hotel lounges, and radio talk shows:

Good for the pilot! It is about time…

Good for him. One more event showing that we have had enough. That pilot has every right to fear for his ship and the people on the flight when ragheads are on board…

I hope more will follow his example. The more we can do to let these savages know they are not welcome the better…

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…it’s a terrorist…

Maybe (the pilot) just realized he is the Infidel they want to kill….

Great! This should be standard procedure at every airline…

Do you think they cavity searched the 80 year old lady in front of them in line and groped the 4 year old girl behind them while telling Ali Baba to have a nice flight ?…

Every single religion should be destroyed. The question is just the order in which that happens…

Eventually we will have to ban Islam from free societies, but until then, enjoy watching innocent people being blown to smithereens…

Awesome! All it takes is one brave pilot to say u2018NOPE' not with you guys on board for more pilots to follow in his footsteps… I will walk off the next flight I take if there are overt Muslims on it… Guess it comes down to using common sense and protecting yourself, like the Founding Fathers had in mind…

If you can't smoke on flights anymore because it endangers other passengers, then it only makes sense that Muslims shouldn't be allowed on flights for the same reason…

I think that removing a Muslim is ALWAYS with reason….they are MUSLIM!…

What an unmitigated statement of ignorance, bigotry and hate. And I’ll bet you’re a professing “Christian” aren’t you?

What a mess. What a heartbreaking, shameful spectacle! And what hypocrisy! I, too, am constantly encountering people who congratulate me along similar lines for refusing to be scanned or frisked, then rattle on about how the politicians and bureaucrats are, "Just too chickenshit and politically correct to pull all the Muslims and Arabs out of line."

Folks, it's not about political correctness — a chickenshit doctrine, to be sure. It's about the ambitious assault of state power against the freedom and essential dignity of every human being who sets foot in an airport terminal. And it's already spilling out of the airports into the streets, by the way. What's worse, while many of these same blowhards deride and call for the utter humiliation and violation of the bearded Imam's basic rights, they willingly present their own bodies, their wives, and their children like chattel to the degrading perversions of an abusive government. (Yes, willingly — grumbling about it doesn't make their actions any less voluntary). So then, we have evolved into a culture that will happily trample the natural rights and liberty of others while simultaneously abdicating our own without the slightest hint of honorable resistance.

Of course, I can't speak for the crew of the flight in Memphis. But I, for one, am ashamed to be praised in this way by the adherents of such despicable principles. Where a tenable threat exists, our highest priority is always to protect our passengers (and ourselves). But liberty and justice for all hardly constitutes a credible danger to anyone except the tyrants who would lord it over the rest of us and who are themselves the greatest legitimate threat. And, if it isn't clear, I'm not talking about radical Islamic fundamentalists. We've got our own domestic breed of despotism springing up right here at home. Our tyrant may be a clean-shaven white man in a western suit, or a mulatto, or a woman (I'm not naming any names, but her initials are Janet Napolitano).

At any rate, whoever the real terrorists are, they seem to be winning. It's evident that fear has become the dominant trait, baked into our national character, manifest in our xenophobic bigotry as well as our truckling predilection to bow the knee rather than incur the cost and discomfort of resisting the blatantly delusive designs of the police state. A quiet kind of terror rips through the hearts and minds of Americans, snatching away virtue, compassion, integrity, faith, and love. It isn't just about Muslims on airliners; it's the buzz on the street, the force that drives us on through daily life and enslaves us — rather, compels us to dutifully enslave ourselves to every false shepherd — to the unjust magistrate, the employer, the charlatan preacher on television, the lender, all promising to deliver us from evil and give us our daily bread.

This tyranny of fear produces in us — indeed, in the soul of entire nations and generations — the vilest forms of bitterness and contempt, the darkest extremes of human nature: cruelty, hatred, and violence. This is the path along which all the horrors of history were brought to pass. It's the path we're on right now, yet knowing this is not enough to turn us aside. We march on. We curse and condemn. And, in the manner with which we judge one another, so are we being judged.

This is hardly some imaginative new sociological theory I just made up. Neither is what I describe a uniquely American phenomenon. It's just people doing what people do and have always done. Human beings have been maligning one another, kicking each other off trains, planes, and automobiles, enslaving, slaughtering, and setting each other on fire for as long as anyone can remember. It's wicked and it sucks and it never stops. Despite the irrefutable testimony of recorded history reflecting our ugliness and all it teaches us about ourselves and our kind, we still haven't managed to rise above our consummate state of depravity — not even a little bit. Nor can we since, to the degree that we've advanced in understanding, technology, and global unification, so we have advanced the instruments of our humiliation and totalitarian oppression. On the other hand, we'll find no lasting relief in avoiding understanding, shunning technology, or in the narrowness of nationalist exceptionalism. We can't just turn around and work our way back to paradise. We've been fruitful and multiplied. We've filled the earth and subdued it. Now here we all are spinning around on this rock — far more together than separate when viewed from above. And the truth we would do well to face is that man is not basically good. No, in a nutshell, man is basically screwed.

That's why our self-righteous efforts to overcome our own savage condition will never succeed. How can we protect ourselves from ourselves by degrading and abusing ourselves? But isn't this how we function when we violate the basic dignity of others and, on that account, ourselves by imposing our answers to the problem of evil in the world on each other by force? Whether it's at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, the Department of Homeland Security, an airline pilot, or SEAL Team Six, the use of violence or threats of violence and other coercive means to arbitrarily control the affairs and prerogatives of others can do nothing to restrain our common affliction. On the contrary, our affliction is never more conspicuous than when we cower under or aspire to rule over one other. Man is unfit to rule himself, much less his fellow man. Neither is the greater part of humankind intrinsically worthy to rule over the lesser part. True liberty isn't the result of good government conquering evil by force. Freedom is not a grant of the state and to treat it as such by subjugating ourselves to the state is a logical absurdity. Indeed, a free society first requires a free people to build, sustain, and defend it against the state's inherent lust for power.

Then what is true freedom, and where does it come from? Whatever is the answer, finding it would not entitle us to foist it on each other by compulsion or intimidation (civilized people sometimes call this legislation or regulation). To do so would belie the authenticity of our wisdom and add another exhibit to the body of evidence against us. Sadly, no party is more guilty in this regard than the Christian church. Following the publicity surrounding this story, I feel obliged to respond in some way to the unfortunate sentiments expressed by numerous Christians and reprove my fellow disciples for the heinous part many have played in the broader scene of anti-Islamic persecution and statist idolatry in this age of terror. For me, the discussion can move no further forward without fully acknowledging this painful truth.

My Burden

As a student and ardent worshipper of Christ, I'm persuaded that he alone is the great liberator of humankind held captive under the universal tyranny of death. Many Christians, however, seem to have forgotten that our freedom is not bought with the worthless blood of our enemies, but that of the sinless Master himself, who loved his enemies (all of us) until it killed him. He has released us from bondage at the auction block of human capital, delivering us from the rule of fear — fear of death, loss, punishment, suffering and oppression in all its endless forms. This rule is most perfectly realized in the state, which derives its power from the legitimized use of deadly force to apply human solutions to human problems. In this we see that the state is fundamentally opposed to the way of Christ as the ultimate hope for true freedom and peace on earth. His is the way of absolute dependence upon God, apart from any rule of law enforced by human strength exerted in violence.

Because its existence depends upon (and receives) the affirmation of popular consent, the state is the principal agent of human rebellion against the Creator. People have a congenital inclination to contrive and manufacture something they can set in motion to look after their every need and desire. The problem with these lifeless artifacts is they must be maintained. They are completely incapable of sustaining their own existence and can't function without the constant care and feeding of their creators. The state is the epitome of such idolatry. Those who depend on it are in truth depending upon their own feeble strength, offered up and wasted in sacrificial toil and futility. When Christians engage under the auspices of the state to resist evil by force, they deny the higher power of God's love by which our Lord endured all hostility to establish an eternal kingdom that is not of this world.

Did the pilots in Memphis throw the clerics off their plane in Jesus's name? I don't know. But droves of self-identified Christians have come out in support of the decision on the basis of the same limited information that has provoked so much outrage on the other side. The not-so-subtle implication is that Muslims are the embodiment of evil on earth and must therefore be suppressed by all means without regard for their civil rights, let alone the teaching and example of Christ himself.

To everyone outside the faith, let me say plainly that Jesus commands us only to love and pursue peace with you. He gives us no license and certainly no mandate to deny your innate dignity, to harass, or deprive you of the basic rights and freedom conferred personally by God to all mankind. It's not for us to inhibit the freedom of movement or other means by which others engage in their daily business. Nor is it our place to control access to the marketplace and starve dissenters into submission. Rather, if our enemy is hungry we're told to feed him and, if he's thirsty, give him something to drink. If we are robbed, it's our privilege to freely give even more — just as the Creator gives good things to ungrateful and evil people like us. The yoke he places on us is easy, and the load we bear is light. Our God has not saddled us with the hopeless mission of driving evil off the face of the earth by violence and cruelty against unbelievers.

But, someone will say, Islam is different and not properly understood. Muslim fundamentalists want to convert, enslave, or destroy us all! If this is true, and if we choose none of the above, the question is not whether we ought to resist, but what sort of resistance will truly deliver us and not simply feed our addiction to terror and strife. Christ teaches us to overcome evil with good, to love our enemies. This is not to say that we kowtow in passive obedience in the face of tyranny and injustice. Rather, we resist in the same love with which we have been irresistibly loved; we drive out fear and are not ruled by it. If our enemy slaps us with his left hand, we stand fast and offer him the opportunity to wield the right one also against our peaceable friendship and so bear witness to his own guilt and shame before God and everyone. By this he is ultimately and utterly defeated, condemned by any reasonable standard of justice and altogether disqualified to bear the crown of victory and authority.

That we do these things imperfectly — or not at all — and so often engage in the same kinds of coercive devices described above in bending the will of others to suit our world view reveals a couple of important points. First, if our escape from the untamed barrens of hatred, fear, destruction, and the judgment of God himself depends on our ability or even our willingness to behave well, then Christians are as basically screwed as everyone else. Second, a lot of people calling themselves Christian simply don't get that and are still trying to be good which, they believe, entails forcing everyone else to be good too. Jesus didn't truck much with people like that in his day, to say the least.

The love of Christ isn't a soft, squishy, amorphous ointment of politically correct weakness that makes us grovel in the face of intimidation. Neither is it a heartless crusade against the heathen doers of iniquity, idol worshippers, homosexuals, Democrats, or swarthy airline passengers wearing funny man-dresses. And please understand that I'm not trying here to proselytize or even persuade anyone of the truth of Scripture or the supremacy of Christ (but feel free to contact me if you want to have that discussion). My goal has been to correct the distortion of the biblical Jesus in the words and actions of many who claim to follow him and bring to light what is true about the content of the Bible and Christ's teaching so everyone will be better able to judge whether any of it is true at all.

Finally, to those who genuinely love and follow Christ, if the words of our Teacher aren't clear enough, let's abide by his example in rejecting all aspiration and allegiance to the violent powers of the earth. We must refuse to prop up the lifeless idols that bind the soul in darkness and affirm that he alone is worthy to rule over us as we gladly submit to his perfect law of fearless love.

A final note: Now that I’ve broken the seal, it seems like as good a time as any to move forward with something I've been mulling over for a while (years, in fact). If you've read all the way through to this point, you may be also interested in checking it out at