In the brave new world we live in since 9-11-01, we all have extra concerns when traveling, especially flying. Melissa and I were traveling home from client meetings in Atlanta recently when we experienced an event that made the new realities more real than ever. I was seated at the lounge near the gate, waiting for the in-bound flight to arrive; Melissa had gone to purchase some bottled water. As I sat there, I heard a commotion behind me and turned around to see what was going on – it was mainly raised voices speaking English and some other language in harsh tones. I turned around to see a man and woman (probably a husband and wife) and the man was ranting, yelling at the wife, screaming, laughing, crying, both on and off a telephone. His tone was harsh, his words slurred and at first, I thought perhaps he was mentally handicapped. I looked around and saw other passengers looking at him. I could not get a clear look, so when Melissa returned, I told her I needed to get up. I walked closer to the couple and saw the man was not noticeably mentally challenged, but something was very wrong. The yelling back and forth continued, the wife tried to get him to quiet down, all to no avail. Then they started slapping each other and grabbing the phone from each other. The yelling continued, but in a loud airport terminal, it was lost somewhat in the overall noise level. I returned to my seat and Melissa and I conferred, what to do? Another passenger, a woman, addressed the couple directly and ask them to calm down; she told them they were making everyone nervous. The man yelled at her, the wife tried to calm him. Again, little changed so I approached the airline staff at the gate and asked them to investigate. They spoke with the couple then returned to the desk. Still, nothing changed. The wife was still trying to calm the man, while occasionally slapping him – perhaps to get his attention. They were speaking something other than English most of the time, so part of everyone’s discomfort was not knowing what was being said. But, given their tone, whatever was being said was disturbing to all of us in the gate area. It continued so I returned to the desk and met a supervisor who, by that time, had been called. I told him the passengers were nervous and asked him to please have the police walk through the gate and observe. He said, “it is so hard to figure out, given the cultural differences” (the woman was dressed in a sari.) I agreed with the supervisor, and coincidentally, had just read a story about airline passengers being overly sensitive, recently reporting a math professor who was working out a math problem that a passenger said looked strange and scary. I felt badly reporting this, but, because it did not resolve itself “normally,” I pressed the supervisor and gave him details that he did not have – about the slapping. He called the police and very soon, an Atlanta police officer arrived to speak with them. The couple began shouting at the officer and the airline supervisor and, within minutes, they were lead down the gangway – we overheard the officer saying “We’re going to board you early and put you in the first row.” This was clearly not comforting to any of us in the gate area. As boarding ensued, this situation was the topic of conversation among all of us queued up for boarding. We apprehensively boarded the plane, but heard sirens as we got on the gangway. Because we did not see the couple on the plane, we realized they were hustled down the side stairway on the gangway and to a waiting police car. It was only then did we breathe a sigh of relief. But, the buzz continued as everyone’s nerves were noticeably rattled. The woman who confronted the couple said to me “I was hoping you had my back.” I said “of course,” and we all did. As we got seated there was 1 passenger, who, because he had headphones on and was playing a game on his tablet in the gate, saw none of this. He said, “what happened?” In today’s world, we must look out for each other, we must be vigilant and observant, and most importantly, speak up. We should be aware of cultural differences (and mathematics equations) but there is a protocol – report something if you see it, discretely if possible; let other eyes focus on the situation. But, “If You See Something, Say Something” is the least we can do. After settling into our seats we knew we did the right thing, but it still felt strange to have had such an encounter. And, I felt badly for the wife who was probably going to have to drive to their next destination with a husband so obviously out of control. But, she took him for better or worse – we didn’t! We’ll never know what was going on. Only that it was the strangest and most concerning gate experience I’ve ever had – and I hope never to experience this again. But, complacency is not an option should such a thing occur. See also our post from February 19, 2015 entitled “Intervene – get involved.”
Although it would have made things simpler to intervene if we had been able to understand what was being said by the man and woman who were fighting in the Atlanta airport, without a doubt, the tone of their voices indicated something was terribly wrong. In addition, their interpersonal violence, in the form of shouting and hitting each other, was a sure sign of trouble, regardless of where they were from or what language they spoke. I have traveled many, many miles on airplanes and as such, I have spent countless hours in airport gate areas awaiting the departure of my flight. Never, until this experience, have I witnessed people screaming at the top of their lungs, not to mention repeatedly slapping and punching each other. I attempted to determine whether the man, who was obviously agitated and the instigator of the violence that ensued, was drunk, on drugs, mentally ill, or some combination of these conditions. I observed him and his female companion (presumably, his wife) for quite some time, however, I was unable to ascertain the cause of his turmoil. The woman appeared to be embarrassed about the man’s behavior and appeared to be asking him to calm down due to the level of discomfort she could see on the part of everyone who was in the airport gate area. However, when confronted with a Fulton County police officer, the woman became almost as abusive toward him as the man traveling with her was toward her. The police officer began his assessment of the situation by calmly and professionally asking the couple what was wrong. As soon as things escalated and they tried to snatch their passports from the gate agent supervisor, who was in the process of handing them to the police officer for the purpose of verifying their identity, the woman joined her husband in verbally assaulting the police officer. (This is, of course, a common occurrence in many domestic violence situations, in which the victim joins her abuser in attacking the law enforcement officers who have responded to the victim’s call for help.) Upon being harassed by both the man and the woman, the Atlanta police officer’s attitude changed from one of cautious investigation to an authoritative, “WALK,” when the couple refused to proceed toward the gangway. As a keen observer of human behavior, as well as an expert on bystander intervention, it was a fascinating event to witness, all the while being frightening as well. I joined my fellow passengers in cheering the Atlanta police officer’s actions and breathing many sighs of relief when we boarded the airplane and discovered the couple’s first row seats were somewhere other than on our flight. Kudos to David for his insistence to the airline employees that the situation was out of control and required immediate intervention by a law enforcement officer. “Fiddling while Rome is burning” is neither David’s nor my style and this is one of many examples of why, if no one else is doing the right thing, David and I do.