An ugly and disturbing incident occurred last week. On a flight from Malaga to Manchester, two men were singled out for humiliating treatment solely because of their appearance. Six passengers refused to board when they saw the pair enter the cabin. After the passengers' concerns were brought to the attention of the pilot, the two men were marched from the plane by the Spanish Civil Guard.
What was their offence? We are told they were speaking what one passenger "thought" was Arabic. They were wearing heavy clothing, while most were in shorts and T-shirts. They were also young Asians. It seems that this combination is now enough to get someone ejected from a plane. For there was no evidence that they were terrorists. They had gone through all the security checks. And the next day they were flown home by the airline without incident.
What happened on this flight was nothing less than mob rule. Instead of standing up to the irrational fears of passengers, the airline's staff capitulated to them. This does not seem to be an isolated incident. Websites used by pilots report similar cases of individuals being singled out to quell the concerns of other travellers. And we report today an apparent case of discriminatory treatment towards a British Asian pilot.
The heightened security arrangements in place at UK airports since an alleged terror plot was uncovered have put many airlines under pressure. Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, has threatened to sue the British Government unless new airport security arrangements are made less cumbersome. But airlines have a responsibility too in this time of heightened security. It is wholly unacceptable for them to pander to the hysteria of their passengers. Any passengers making a fuss based on nothing except the appearance of a fellow passenger - as happened in Malaga - should be told that all the proper security checks have been made. And if they still have a problem, the complainant should be given the option of leaving the plane. Nor is it the place of the airlines to lobby for the Government to introduce passenger profiling in security checks - shorthand for singling out Asians and Muslims.
It is not simply in our airports that such distasteful practices are creeping in. There has been a huge increase in the number of Asians being stopped and searched by police on the streets. It should be noted that not a single arrest for terrorist offences has resulted from this. But it has certainly alienated those who have found themselves on the receiving end. The claim that such targeting ultimately "makes Asians safer too" is unconvincing. No matter how honest the intention, such profiling will always have the effect of making Asian people feel as if they are under collective suspicion. According to Alan Gordon, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation, "profiling in one form or another has always existed in policing". This may well be true, but that does not make it right. And it certainly does not support the case for a widening of the policy.
A heightened atmosphere of suspicion among sections of the public towards Asians, particularly on transport, was always likely to result from the bombings in London and Madrid, not to mention 11 September. But the response of the authorities should be to attempt to counter such suspicions, rather than stoke them as they appear increasingly willing to do. If we submit to the temptations of racial profiling and mob rule, we merely give the fanatics one more propaganda victory. We will give credence to the idea that it is not terrorists who are our target, but Muslims in general. In the long term there is nothing that could put us more at risk.