Late last month, authorities held a New York-bound American Airlines flight on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport after learning of a threat phoned in anonymously to a local business.

Investigators had few tips to work from other than the call, but they chose to remove a couple from the plane in handcuffs and place them in a squad car after the jetliner’s passengers were left to wait for several hours. The man and woman were quickly released, and the pair was told by officials that they “were picked at random for questioning,” according to the Associated Press.

So why were handcuffs used if there was no particular reason to select them for scrutiny? One reason could have been their appearance. Travelers from Middle Eastern countries have been singled out during a string of recent scares that after the fog cleared apparently had nothing to do with terrorism.

FBI officials eventually concluded the anonymous call in San Francisco “wasn’t credible.” The handcuffed passengers wouldn’t say much to reporters about it other than to confirm the official explanation given for why they were escorted away in front of a plane full of strangers.

A witness of the false alarm onboard the flight said he observed that the man and woman were carrying passports from Pakistan. “It definitely seems like it was racial profiling, based on what they look like physically and the fact that they are Pakistani,” the onlooker said.

Nagged by unanswered questions, Elevated Risk decided to call the San Francisco Police Department’s airport bureau for more of an explanation. A spokesman there, Sgt. Michael Rodriguez, said it was standard policy to handcuff anyone transferred to another location in a police vehicle. The couple was taken to a separate interview area, he said, while officials took others from the plane who were questioned as possible witnesses to an airport terminal on buses and not in handcuffs.

That still means the two were treated differently, but Rodriguez wouldn’t explain why, saying the FBI is still investigating the original call. “Because of the investigation that’s ongoing regarding the call that came in, we can’t comment on that,” Rodriguez said. He also wouldn’t address the witness allegation of racial profiling. The FBI office in San Francisco, meanwhile, never got back to us.

Days later in a separate incident, several top military officers from Pakistan were yanked from a United Airlines flight in Washington, D.C. after one of them made a remark considered to be “inappropriate” by a flight attendant. The delegation was on its way to a conference hosted by the U.S. Central Command in Florida. The Defense Department here later reportedly apologized, as did the airline, but the Pakistanis were offended enough by what happened that they cancelled the scheduled meeting.

According to the Washington Post:

United did not provide details, but Pakistani officials said the remark came from a general in the delegation who – weary of a long day of travel that began in Islamabad – said, ‘I hope this is my last flight,’ or words to that effect.

Other news accounts say it was a fellow passenger that complained about the remark, but the dye by then was cast. After removal from the plane, security officers at Dulles International Airport held the group and prohibited them from calling the Pakistan embassy or Pentagon officials they were supposed to be visiting as guests, according to statements made by the Pakistani government.

The decision to head home instead of attending the meeting apparently stemmed in part from “rude treatment” and “interrogations” the military leaders claimed to have endured at the hands of airport security.

The most high-profile incident, however, involved two men of Yemeni descent, one a citizen and the other allegedly here on an expired visa, who were held by police in Amsterdam after U.S. officials became all-but-convinced they were involved in a “dry run” to test the possibility of a terrorist attack. That, too, turned out to be a rushed determination that made headlines and became one of the most bizarre faux-terrorism cases of the year.

The men were headed to Yemen from Chicago, and screeners from the Transportation Security Administration found in a suitcase belonging to one of them a cell phone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle and multiple other wristwatches and cell phones that together authorities believed simulated a bomb. A box cutter and knives were also reportedly found, and early tests raised the possibility that explosives were present, a worry debunked by later follow-up examinations.

Federal officials ultimately backed off suspicions that the men, who didn’t know each other, were scheming a terror plot. A brother to one of the men told Detroit TV reporters that it’s not uncommon to bundle gifts separately with names written on them when travelling home for a visit.

Either way, early news stories that strongly suggested U.S. security procedures were being challenged by would-be attackers changed dramatically within days as more facts emerged.

It’s possible law enforcement officials were on edge as the anniversary of Sept. 11 approached, and it’s also possible that the two passengers pulled off the American Airlines flight in San Francisco were, in fact, somehow connected to the threatening phone call. No doubt reporters would have grilled responsible federal authorities with questions if any of the events had materialized as violent attacks.

Taken together, however, the results don’t spell a win against violent extremism. Yemen and Pakistan are both modern fronts in the war on terror, and in one of those countries the United States is battling al-Qaeda and the Taliban for hearts and minds in the wake of a history-making flood that’s left millions homeless.

The Muslim and Arab worlds closely observe stories of international visitors or foreign-born citizens being treated as terrorists in the United States – even if it’s simply a matter of perception – just like eyes are turned now to America’s vitriolic fight over the planned mosque near ground zero and the Florida preacher who wanted to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11.

How we respond not only shows the world what democracy looks like, it could mean the difference between success or failure in the fight against terrorism.

Flickr image courtesy caribb

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.