The internet is again churning in outrage. We have moved on from inane advertisements about cola and now the viral fury is directed at a shocking injustice committed on a United Airlines flight, as a passenger was violently removed from the plane to make space for a staff member of the company. The man in question, a Chinese-American medical doctor, appeared to be chosen at random to vacate his seat due to “overbooking”, but many commentators are pointing out the racial dimension of the case. He himself declared as much, shouting “I’m being selected because I’m Chinese” before being forcibly removed by police officers.
The video is distressing. But upon initially watching, it reminded me of the famous psychological experiment known as the Bystander Effect, which is demonstrated strikingly in this video made by three American teenagers. While there is one vocal protester on the United Airlines flight who attempts to confront the police officers with their blatant violence – “Look at what you are doing!” – the majority of people on the plane are passively observing. To point this out is not to stand in judgement of people who must have been distressed and shocked by what was happening but to illuminate something seen very clearly in the video of the experiment linked to above, from the secondary school. There, the high school students deferred to authority figures to deal with the people passed out on the corridor. Watching the United Airlines footage, I felt gratitude for the woman loudly raising her objections, but I suspect that I would have been among the silent majority had I been on the flight.
The Police and Contracts
The video is distressing because it is a visceral display of state violence, on behalf of a corporation, against a private citizen. But in this sense, it serves to undo our illusions. All too often we can imagine that our life is arranged by our individual, voluntary choices. I choose to fly from Chicago to Louisville, you choose to drive, and the third person chooses to hitchhike. But society is not just the sum total of individuals living in a place. Our entire lives are shaped and disciplined by communal forces. We dress and groom ourselves according to unwritten rules we call fashion. We speak and write in a structured format we call grammar. And underlying every financial transaction is the possibility of the coercive force of the state. We are grateful for the police if someone tries to shoplift from our family business. That’s what the police are for; they are the arm of the state that enforces contracts. We should not be astonished when the police take the side of the mega-corporation as they implement a loophole in their contracts and kick a group of ticket-holders off the plane to make way for employees. This aspect of our economy was recently discussed with great clarity by the Catholic social theorists Elizabeth and Matt Breunig at a Harvard Law Forum. Their presentation on “Building a Moral Economy” may be an antidote for the depression that might linger after watching the United Airlines footage.
State Violence Exposed
The video is distressing because it reveals how the security apparatus that has now built up around flying makes us unsafe. In the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, power was centralised across the western world in the hands of government security forces. This is made most clear to us at the airport, as we willingly queue and wait to go through checks and counter-checks which the influential security expert Bruce Schneier calls “security theatre”. It is one of the curious wrinkles in the logic of globalisation. Capital can flow over borders without obstruction, but increasingly we are subject to tests that assume everyone warrants suspicion. Our finger-prints are taken, our retinas are scanned and kept on file, our palms are scrutinised for traces of explosive materials and increasingly, our social media footprint is analysed to ensure we have no provocative religious or political convictions. Flying is already a fearsome prospect for many, but through this massive infrastructure of surveillance, the process of flying becomes vexatious in the extreme. We might hope that things would be different in Ireland or the EU, but we also know that the same sort of force stands ready to be deployed in the airports at Dublin or Frankfurt. So much of our shared life is spent evading our fears. The terror at the heart of our social life is laid bare in this video.
Holy Week Reflections
One Dubliner, Ferg Breen, posed a pertinent question on Twitter: “It feels otherly & idealistic but imagine someone stood up on that @united plane and said ‘take me instead’ in support of the gentleman.”
This perceptive query allows us to see this video in the light of Holy Week. This week we can pray not just for the doctor dragged from the plane but for those who sat by and recorded it, because crowds of hard-working, good, average people were so easily manipulated by power and authority during the last week of Jesus’ life. The same people who acclaimed him as King, days later called for him to be killed. The story of Holy Week is not ancient history, but is alive and well in how easily we are cowed and silenced, how simple it can be to get us to just stand by in the face of injustice.
We see the story of Holy Week retold in the ability of the big corporation to call on the power of the police and the state to make their business run smoothly. After all, Jesus could have lived a long and happy life wandering around Judea doing good things for people and telling divine yarns. The power of the state moved decisively against him when he dared to interrupt the flow of commerce in the courts of the temple. Holy Week is not ancient history. It is recapitulated every time our radio broadcasts stop on the hour, like a secular angelus, to tell us the business news and update us on the stock market. We can pray too for those who committed this injustice, having been trained to think “I’m just doing my job.” How much of the suffering in the world is born from that dynamic?
The story of Holy Week comes alive as we watch this video because we see the ways in which the same brutal, defensive force that was once marshalled by a Roman procurator named Pilate persists in our day. We can delude ourselves into thinking we are civilised in our modern, liberal democracies, but the same truth that prevailed as Jesus was summonsed before a kangaroo court prevails today: violence and fear appear to run the world. Holy Week is not ancient history. The politics of the Sanhedrin and Pilate are not far removed from us. Jesus’ non-violent opposition to the forces of fear is as radical today as it was back then. This Holy Week we must pray that we would be ambassadors for his potent politics of peace.
Ferg Breen asks us to imagine if someone stood up and said “Take me instead”? This Holy Week, we are bystanders and we are the temple police called upon to enforce contracts, and we are those who live under the shadow of state violence. This Holy Week we look to the one who said “Take me instead”, and whose peaceful righteousness proved once and for all that violence and fear do not run the world.