This isn't about right or wrong. It's just about some experience and thinking that has led me to a conclusion.
It was national news when, on January 21, a small US Airways plane operated by Chautauqua Airlines (as, for some inexplicable reason so many US Airways planes are operated by smaller carriers these days) that left LaGuardia Airport in New York City at 7:30 am bound for Louisville was diverted to Philadelphia because, it was later explained, a flight attendant thought a 17 year-old Orthodox Jewish boy engaging his his religion's required ritual prayer using ritually required tefillin -- two small boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps pictured above -- and strapping them onto his body to pray as required, was a terrorist She thought the leather straps were wires and, perhaps, the kid was going to blow up the plane. She told the pilot and, as required, he diverted to Philadelphia.
The requirement for the tefillin comes from the Shema Yisrael, the central prayer of Judiasm ("Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One"] and those are the words on the scrolls inside the tefilin.
The specific passage that gave birth to this ritual is "These words which I command thee this day shall be upon thy heart...Thou shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets [tefillin] between your eyes...."
There is also a very specific prescribed way to put the tefillin on the head and around the arm.
The kid did all this and the flight attendant panicked.
In a very fine article about the incident in the New York Times James Barron briefly recapped what happened and then discussed the reaction of New Yorkers where such rituals are familiar to just about everyone no matter what their religion.
In the comments, some people rightly pointed out that what happened on that fight was a logical event in light of our awareness of the horrific possibilities of what can occur. Many also expressed their belief that religious ritual is a private matter carried out in private or in a house of worship. Others said of the boy "If the same boy were Muslim he's be in Guantanamo by now."
So, let's agree that the boy -- while very sincere in his belief -- chose the wrong time and place to express his beliefs. But, what I don't understand is why an airline staff member whose job is dealing with the public and who flies out of New York City isn't aware of this practice. Aren't airlines subject to compliance with federal EEOC laws that mandate diversity traning?
When I worked in government -- in both state and federal government, as well as in government-run healthcare settings -- we took classes. We learned about differences, various religious practices, etc. Walking around any airport in New York City, you'll see people dressed in a range of traditional ways, eating their culture's traditional food and, yes, praying with tefillin.
My suggestion, thus, is better diversity training for those corporate employees who have to deal with a diverse public. The boy may have been wrong but it is also wrong that an employee of a corporation that operates in a city with almost two million Jewish residents, many of whom practice such rituals, didn't know what she was seeing. I think we have to change our EEOC training requirements to take in as many eventualities as possible.
Update: Monday, January 25: I got an email from a helpful man named Schmeul Tennenhaus. He's created a youtube video giving instructions on using Tefillin and showing his ideas about using them on an airplane. He makes fun of the TSA, but the last line, especially, may amuse you.