Brian Viner: Sometimes your prejudices can frighten you

'Alongside me, in seat 13F, was a man of Middle Eastern appearance looking, it seemed, nervous'
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The Independent Online

On Tuesday afternoon I caught a flight from London Stansted, having for once been grateful for a two-hour delay. It enabled me, like many other passengers, to watch the horrifying news from New York and Washington DC unfolding on a monitor in the departure lounge. I am not a nervous flyer, but nevertheless, it was not the best prelude to a flight, and there was palpable relief when the plane touched down in Edinburgh.

The following afternoon I caught the return flight. Security had been stepped up considerably. The airline, Go, did not allow anyone to take hand luggage aboard, which was an inconvenience as I only had a briefcase, yet also reassuring.

All passengers were then subjected to an unusually thorough search; further reassurance. And while I waited my turn, I remembered the word "frisk" entering the vocabulary. That was in the early 1970s when terrorism, then principally embodied by Black September, Baader-Meinhof and the IRA, went global. I remembered how my father used to talk, almost with excitement, about having being frisked at London Airport.

Not only was I comprehensively frisked on Wednesday (except for my shoes – might not a weapon be hidden in a shoe?), the security chap at the X-ray belt even flicked through the paperback that I had just bought. It was Inishowen, by Joseph O'Connor, and if the security chap had lingered at page 17, he would have read: "The skyscrapers glistened, orchid cream, watery silver, sapphire blue. Off to the south he could see the Twin Towers, their upper storeys disappearing into the mist."

I then sat in the lounge. I noticed from my boarding pass that I had been allocated seat 13E. I am not superstitious, but I decided that I would rather have been given 14E, the more so when I found that alongside me, in 13F, was a young man of Middle Eastern appearance, looking, it seemed to me, a trifle nervous. I noticed, without any inward titter of irony, that he was wearing a bomber jacket.

I'm sorry to report that tolerance and common sense crumbled pretty much immediately. The rational part of my mind told me that a hijacker was hardly likely to target a flight from Edinburgh to Stansted, but it was outshouted by the irrational, which bellowed that someone, on another aeroplane 24 hours earlier, might have glanced at the suspicious man next to them and concluded the same of Boston to Los Angeles.

As we took off, my neighbour muttered a little prayer. I noticed that his hands were sweating. On a scale of conviction of one to 10, I hovered around nine, just less than it took to make a real fool of myself by jumping on him. I still tore a page out of my notebook and surreptitiously scribbled a message to my wife, which read: "I think the man next to me might be a terrorist. I love you. Give the kids a big kiss." I suppose I was applying Viner's Law: if you work hard enough to convince yourself that something awful is going to happen, it won't.

Nevertheless, by the time we reached cruising altitude I remained sure my neighbour had terrible intentions. So I did what I should have done all along, I engaged him in conversation. He was 28, and from Afghanistan. He had sought asylum in Britain eight years before, and worked as a minicab driver in London. He also did courier work, hence his journey to Edinburgh.

We talked about the carnage in America. It was, he said, "wrong, wrong, wrong". Nevertheless, he seemed to find some satisfaction in America experiencing the horrors for so long visited on the Third World, horrors that "American weapons helped to inflict". He suggested America was controlled by Jews. He talked passionately about the Koran.

And when I mentioned Osama bin Laden he said that in Afghanistan there exists the fierce belief that if you give someone shelter in your home, you will defend him to the death. He then added that his cousin was picking him up at Stansted, and could he offer me a lift home?

By now I had realised three things: first, that he was not a terrorist; second, that he did conform in some ways to the racist stereotype that I had tarred him with; and third, and most disturbingly, that the racist stereotype had come so irrepressibly to mind. It is no consolation to know that other minds, in these coming weeks, months, even years, will behave in similar fashion.