Toby Miller shakily recalls an airborne brush with terror

Toby Miller recalls a paralysing encounter with terror in the skies and asks: in my shoes, would you have reacted differently?

April 25, 2013

When the FBI and local law enforcement appealed to the public to do their citizen duty in the wake of last week’s Boston bombings, they were asking for images, memories and tip-offs. This led to a vast array of intelligence.

For one citizen - me - it raised some uncomfortable feelings.

Like many people, as I watched the events of 15 April unfold, my mind turned to other sites of terror - apartments in Munich, towers in Manhattan, villages in Afghanistan. I lived in New York for more than a decade and saw people leap to their deaths in 2001. Those memories are powerful.

The day after Boston, though, I thought of a shameful moment in my past that I have never adequately processed.

It took place in 1996, en route to the Visible Evidence documentary conference in Cardiff from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s annual convention, held that year in Anaheim. I flew from Southern California to New York and then Manchester, where I was scheduled to catch a plane to the Welsh capital.

I never got on it.

Here’s why.

As the flight was about to take off from New York, the man next to me asked to swap seats. He was deaf in one ear and wanted to converse with me. I agreed.

Perhaps an hour over the Atlantic, he began his story.

His disability had arisen during military service. He was an excellent polo player, whose commanding officer had recruited him to enhance the division’s reputation. But they didn’t get on, and my interlocutor refused to play. One day during martial exercises, the CO deliberately exposed him to a major explosion. Hence his partial deafness.

As passenger encounters go, this one seemed mildly interesting. More was to follow.

He told me he was involved with shady dealings in Gotham, where his workplace refused to pay protection money. He had fought the racketeers, been arrested and charged with a crime. Impoverished, he relied on Jewish attorneys, who defended him pro bono.

As he told me this last part, he paused, then said: “That’s why I put a bomb on this plane. I want to kill as many Jews as possible.”

Their Jewishness and his dependence on them (there had been other pro bono cases) enraged him. He wanted revenge, and thought this could be done through a plane bound from New York. Or so he said.

What should I have done?

My calculation took the following form: we are now a couple of hours over the ocean, with nowhere to land, and no sizeable body of people outside the plane at immediate risk. The guy could be lying, playing a prank or delusional. I’ll talk to him about his feelings and not show any sign of panic. Since I can’t see anything the crew or anybody else can do to improve the situation, or how sharing what I know might help, I’ll keep shtum and just talk him down. Whatever that means.

So I listened to hour after hour of anti-Semitism, anti-Hinduism, anti- Americanism, and anti-me-ism.

The approach to Manchester Airport was crucial. Was the bomb attached to the landing gear, or in a bag? Would it be engaged by the impact of arrival? Might we dodge a bullet? Was there even a bullet on board?

As we safely disembarked, my fellow passenger smiled and handed me his business card. He sold used cars in Queens and would offer me a good deal.

At this point, any rational person would have spoken to the crew, immigration, baggage handlers, the police and a therapist, probably in that order.

I did none of those things. Confused, blinded by suppressed fear and controlled calm, I was just relieved everyone was alive. And I knew I couldn’t possibly get on that flight to Cardiff.

I headed to a rental car company. Having flown across a continent and the Atlantic, I drove in heavy rain and crazed anxiety from Cheshire to Wales, too terrified to climb on to another plane, and too unhinged to see the threat I posed to others.

I had forgotten the man’s name. I think I tore up his business card and threw it away. I never informed the authorities. I can barely recall what he looked like. I failed my duty as a citizen, and probably broke some laws. I did the wrong thing - several wrong things.

All this happened in the persona of a mild-mannered professor making his way from conference to conference, who arrogated to himself the use of American psychologist Carl Rogers’ non-directive, client-centred counselling to stabilise someone seemingly intent on mass killing. I had drawn on my amateur knowledge of those theories, which are meant to prevent further harm during a psychological crisis. A kind of therapeutic Hippocrates overtook my fevered mind.

Looking back, I realise this was irresponsible. I regret not telling my story once we were all off the plane. Had these things happened after my experience of air piracy and terror over Manhattan, I think I’d have reacted differently.

And you?

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