The viral story of the week award goes to the United Airlines passenger who was forcefully removed from an overbooked plane in order to make room for crew members who needed to get to their destination to staff another plane. The video is crazy, and the follow-up videos of the man bleeding, asking people to just kill him, show a very disturbed, very distraught man. I don’t blame folks for saying the whole thing is crazy, nor do I have any problem with people seeing both sides of the story (that airlines need to oversell if they’re going to stay in business, and that people shouldn’t get physically assaulted under these circumstances). What surprised me, at least at first, was how even this seemed to fall along partisan lines.
Before I get into this situation, I want to tell a little story of a similar situation that I experienced. Several years ago I was flying for work. I can’t remember exactly where I was going, but I think the plane was either going to, or coming from, Miami. After we all boarded, the flight attendant announced that there was a crew member who needed to get to the destination city to staff another flight, and they needed a volunteer to give up their seat. They offered a travel voucher, and I think they upped the deal when nobody responded, and then they gave up and said that they would be selecting a passenger to deplane. The flight attendant walked to the back of the plane, and started a conversation with a woman in the very last row. It started off too quiet for me, a few rows away, to hear, but quickly escalated. The passenger was saying things like, “I’m not going anywhere, I paid for this seat,” and “you can’t do this to people.” At one point, she said something like, “just try to make me leave and see what happens.” In response, the flight attendant asked, “are you threatening me?” And without waiting for a response, walked quickly toward the front of the plane. The woman made some comment, I can’t remember what, and another passenger responded, “lady, you’re going to jail now.” What struck me was how unsympathetic this comment was. The tone was more like, you’re going to jail where you deserve to be and I hope you rot there for a century. A couple others chimed in also, with comments like, “you should have just left on your own, now you’re going to leave in handcuffs.” The woman started talking with her travel companion, I think maybe her father, an elderly man who didn’t seem to speak English (during the initial conversation with the flight attendant, she made it clear that he needed her to be with him, and there didn’t seem to be much sympathy for that, and they weren’t offering to put him on a different flight). Then the woman started to cry. Not very loud, but she was clearly crying. And then the police officers came on board. There was some discussion, more pleading from her, and then a minor struggle that ended with her, as predicted by the other passenger, in handcuffs being escorted off the plane. I felt so bad for this poor woman, but my sympathy quickly turned to disgust when at least a dozen passengers started to cheer and clap when she was escorted off the plane. I just couldn’t believe it. It could have just as easily been one of them being removed from the plane, but here they were, cheering at her misfortune because it meant that we could finally take off. I wanted to kick every one of them in the shins.
Fast forward to this week, and the story wasn’t much different, except that the officers went quite a bit further in their use of force, and the passenger put up a much bigger stink. For most of the day it happened, all I heard, read, and saw were stories about people ripping United for the event. Memes about the way United treats their passengers, and story after story of similar circumstances on other flights. Twitter turned on United, as did FaceBook. And then I got in the car, and as I do so many times on my drive home, I checked in on the conservative AM radio to see what they were talking about. No surprise, they were talking about the United situation, but much to my surprise, it was all about how wrong the passenger was, how crazy the passenger was, and how it all seemed like a giant publicity stunt. They mocked his scream when the officers grabbed him, and they clearly thought he got what he deserved. I couldn’t believe it. Later in the evening, I see stories (and clips) of Bill O’Reilly laughing at the passenger, and Rush Limbaugh made it a point to reveal a pretty bad history of charges against the man who was dragged off the plane.
Why is this so partisan? Is it purely a divide between the empathetic and the non-empathetic? I’ve often felt that empathy is a step beyond sympathy, and the ability to take (or inability to take) that step is one of the things that makes people prone to liberal or conservative ideologies. Maybe this is consistent with that…maybe it’s showing that in action. It makes me sad either way.