A suburban Ohio housewife who was strip-searched and detained at the Detroit Metro Airport on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks can proceed with a lawsuit against the FBi and other federal agencies that alleges ethnic profiling.
Hebshi is an American with both Arab and Jewish ancestry. She was seated on a plane that had landed at the Detroit airport when armed agents stormed the aircraft and handcuffed her and two Indian-American men who lived in the Detroit metro area.
A freelance journalist, Hebshi wrote about the incident on her blog:
“The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.
"The cops brought us to a parked squad car next to the plane, had us spread our legs and arms. Mine asked me if I was wearing any explosives. ‘No,’ I said, holding my tongue to not let out a snarky response. I wasn’t sure what I could and could not say, and all that came out was ‘What’s going on?’
“No one would answer me. They put me in the back of the car. It’s a plastic seat, for all you out there who have never been tossed into the back of a police car. It’s hard, it’s hot, and it’s humiliating. The Indian man who had sat next to me on the plane was already in the backseat.
“I turned to him, shocked, and asked him if he knew what was going on. I asked him if he knew the other man that had been in our row, and he said he had just met him. I said, it’s because of what we look like. They’re doing this because of what we look like. And I couldn’t believe that I was being arrested and taken away. …
“I got out of the car and was led, still cuffed, to a cell. ‘Are you serious?’ I asked the officer, and he said yes. The heavy metal door was shut and locked behind me. Again, I asked what was going on and why was I here. Finally he said, they will let you know later. They are going to ask you some questions. ...
“I sat down on the metal cot that hung off the wall. It had a thin, green vinyl mattress–mattress is a generous term–that offered no comfort. It was about a 6-by-10 cell, the concrete walls were painted a light yellow but were streaked with black dirt. The floor was some sort of stainless steel, and a stainless steel toilet that has probably never seen the good side of a scrubbing brush, instructed me to keep holding my stretched bladder as long as I could. Near the ceiling above the toilet there was a video camera. ...
“I heard the officers discuss my impending strip search. They needed to bring in a female officer. At least they were following protocol, or something to that nature. Still, could this really be happening?
“ ‘You understand why we have to do this, right? It’s for our own protection,’ she told me.
“Because I am so violent. And pulling me off an airplane, handcuffing me and patting me down against a squad car didn’t offer enough protection. They also needed to make sure all my orifices were free and clear. ...
“ I did hear two officers talking about the man who stole a $3,000 watch at the security checkpoint. Now there’s a real crime. What was I doing here? ...
“Another female officer, this one in jeans and a t-shirt. came to visit me. She introduced herself as an agent – Homeland Security. She removed my handcuffs and had me follow her to a different room down a long hall and through a few doors. As we walked, I got a glimpse of the watch-stealer, a chubby middle-aged white guy with a buzz cut. He didn’t look too different from some of the officers. …
“I asked what was going on, and the man said judging from their line of questioning that I could probably guess, but that someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity. What is the likelihood that two Indian men who didn’t know each other and a dark-skinned woman of Arab/Jewish heritage would be on the same flight from Denver to Detroit? Was that suspicion enough? Even considering that we didn’t say a word to each other until it became clear there were cops following our plane? Perhaps it was two Indian men going to the bathroom in succession? …”
“I ... followed the officer out of the cell and into another small room where the male FBI agent was waiting accompanied by another FBI agent – possibly the head honcho on duty. He said the three of us were being released and there was nothing suspicious found on the plane. He apologized for what had happened and thanked me for understanding and cooperating. He said, ‘It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.’ He said they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like.
“He said there had been 50 other similar incidents across the country that day.”
Michael Steinberg, the legal director of ACLU Michigan, which assisted Hebshi in her lawsuit against the FBI, said in a news release that the decision allowing the action to move forward “sends a strong message to law enforcement that race and ethnicity are not synonymous with suspicious activity.”
After the incident, then FBI Special Agent in Charge of Detroit Andy Arena told the Free Press that the FBI did interview the woman and the men, but said: "We treated her well."
Frontier Airlines told the Free Press at the time that they were following airline protocol after passengers had seen the two men seated next to Hebshi were seen as suspicious because they had gone to the restroom in succession.
"I feel violated, humiliated and sure that I was taken from the plane simply because of my appearance," Hebshi told the newspaper. "I was forced into a situation where I was stripped of my freedom and liberty that so many of my fellow Americans purport are the foundations of this country.”