Terrorism at 30,000ft


“I pulled apart the plane’s bathroom, at 30,000 feet all his behaviour suggested TERROR!”

2nd day of October, 2015

I left Penang having wrapped up a story on Malay-Indian culture, and I took my 2nd flight of the day from Kuala Lumpur, bound for Australia. It would be a 7.5 hour flight through the night that would prove emotionally challenging.

I helped the elderly Philippine lady fill out her immigration details, beside her sits a Korean student. Both are heading to Queensland for their first trip to Australia, and both are peace- fully unaware of the fear that would soon grip a small group of us as the night drifted in.

The three who sat in front of me included a young lady from NSW, and a father from Queensland. His son sat across the aisle from him, along with a group of male carers and his son’s young soccer team members, scattered throughout the 360 plus seat jumbo. In between the two Australians sits an Indian national, also heading home to Queensland. I had assumed he was the lady’s partner. He wasn’t.



Shortly after takeoff the two sitting beside me fell asleep. The Indian man in front of me rises and heads off for a spell. He is gone for 40 minutes. The lady beside him and the father are concerned, as he has taken the long walk to the back of the plane and not to the toilets nearby. Is he sick? His mannerisms are not lost on the young lady either. She is concerned. I provide logical and more positive examples of why he might be away for so long. I finally see him leave the toilet as he heads back to us after strangely lingering there for a while. We ask the man if he is sick. I offer him Chinese herbal remedies I have for his apparent stomach aliments. No, he states, it is a sore throat that irritates him. His commu- nication is limited and awkward. I promptly provide him with some throat lozenges.

The man becomes fidgety and once again heads off to the toilet at the back of the plane!

The conversation between the three travellers and I again becomes merry and an agreement is forged between us three males as to the desir- ability of Indian fish curry. Soon, though, the man becomes fidgety and once again heads off to the toilet at the back of the plane. He is gone for 20 minutes. The lady begins to worry, his behaviour and movements seemed odd indeed, and she described his edgy movements and shuffling in the seat pocket in front of him, where his wallet and phone lay. I again provide reasons for his departure but now I too am more concerned. We three, begin twisting necks and eyes to the back of the plane, as the thoughts of terrorism begin to manifest. We look at what he has left behind in his seat pocket, discovering the phone and wallet. I am fast running out of objective excuses for this man, and when the lady states that he has been playing with something down his pants, the father suggests he might be ‘wired up’ and is now at the plane’s tail! Will his phone trigger a device that would see us blown to 8 pieces and sucked out of the plane? Or perhaps an explosion may sound at the plane’s rear as we plummet to our demise? I lurch into attack mode! We must now at least alert the plane’s staff. If we don’t, then what may follow is then our fault.


The father hits the in-flight staff request light. The two in front of me lower voices and explain the scenario. The Australian lady explains how the man has been scratching all over. I too noticed his fidgeting and put it down to flight nerves. The hostess disappears and seemingly does nothing. The father is worried; I explain that they are probably relaying passport info back to KL.

An Australian lady takes her newborn for a walk up the plane’s aisle

An Australian lady takes her newborn for a walk up the plane’s aisle. No, this isn’t on; one man can’t cause all this misery! I won’t have it! Another hostess is called by the father and she states that they had knocked on the toilet door, the man replying that he was OK. The hostess explained that this is all that they could do. The appearance of a saviour, an undercover armed guard, fails to appear. Survival thoughts enter the fray; I might have to take this bloke down. But then the toilet door again swings open and the man is not baring ill-will. He joins us and a host- ess asks him if he is OK? The father is less kind, while trying to protect his son and the young lady. He begins to heavy him. I watch on. Again the Indian national is awkward in his defence. The father leans in on him and demands: “Don’t you think it is odd that you have been in the toilet for so long?” Perhaps his military training, or the accumulated scars of a war service, makes him less than tactful now. The man smiles as if embarrassed and shows gentle gestures, but the father won’t relent.

I pull the cavities out of the toilet walls in search of the terror within

The air settles. I am scared, but not a deep fear, there is not the pulsating of adrenaline cours- ing through my veins. I begin to feel safer now that he is at least back with us, and not in the toilet. I want the father to relax some more and I want to reassure the frightened lady, who is still showing kindness to the man despite her fear. I explain to the father that he must now become more at ease, though I would check the toilet for any hidden nasties. The man takes note of my movements as I enter the toilet and begin to pull apart the plastic wall fixtures. Is what I am doing reckless, will I set a bomb off? Will it go off anyway and I can now buy us some time? I might find a small plastic knife even; stop the maniacal assault of a lunatic.

I weave digits through toilet rolls and their hold- ers, move through paper waste, nothing. I am surprised by the number of compartments I find, one easily able to conceal horror. As I remove the wall a pilot light shines out to me. Oh no! It’s not blinking though, that’s a good sign right? I remove the adjoining wall frame to get to the rear of the light and the device. Phew, everything is as it should be, all part of the toilet room func- tion. I am glad that nothing has been found. As I leave the toilet the hostess grins wryly. While the father was interrogating the man, she had entered the toilet, I guess trained to seek out any discrepancies. The father’s friend arrives to support me and the staff. He towers above me. It is nice to know that there is group of other men about willing to stop any acts of violence. I offer further support to the staff if required. The father’s friend explains that the father has had military training. I nod, suggesting I noticed a tattoo that had announced this to me. He also said that his friend might be over reacting, I agreed and said that I had calmed him down.

I returned to my seat and speak as subtly as I can to the father, as suggested by the hostess. He is relieved. The man notices this communication, and is aware of the young lady who moves from her chair to also visit me. She is also relieved. Not a single soul around us other than the father’s son had noticed the proceedings. I am also happy for the man, as he is now perceived as not being a terrorist. The father though continues to keep an eye on his movements; especially the area of his body that the lady feared might conceal the hidden peril. However, a deep sadness enters my world as something is made obvious to me and leaves me feeling deeply ashamed.


Among all my other students of varying colourful personalities and educational requirements, I tutor, teach and support students with Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Earlier in the evening, the man’s fidgeting and anxiousness did tell me subconsciously that he could well be on the spec- trum. We all display certain factors anyway so perhaps we don’t always pick up on some points. I am very much of the ADD reality. I have been trained to write educational programs to assists students with Autism, and behavioural needs, but many in society are unaware of the varied intricacies and positives of Autism and Aspergers

I observed him for some time and become laden with guilt and sadness; this poor soul. He was already feeling anxious with having to be on a crowded plane, and now he was being punished for his awkwardness and inability to commu- nicate his feelings effectively. I explained my understanding of the man’s behaviour to the father, who agreed that I was probably right. To stop the father from again being overbearing and smothering, though we had every realistic reason for harbouring morbid fears at the time, I explained to the father that the man was indeed just expressing behaviours consistent with areas within the Autism spectrum. He was fidgeting to reassure and comfort himself in a stressful situation. Depending on the personality of an individual, or their level within the Autism spec- trum, some will seek a safe, silent place, where the overbearing world of sound and social inter- action is silenced. The toilet was that place. His flittering hand, tapping on the magazines in front of him, his stretching out and then looking about startled when he bumped someone, also a reassurance and interaction with his immediate environment.

The concealed weapon I saw myself, and what man doesn’t fidget there right? By holding on there he was also just finding a way to take the edge off the stress he was going through, it was neither sexual, nor a danger to us. The father calmed and actually appeared to nod off for a spell. I was too sad for the man to sleep. I thought of his parents, though he was middle- aged and held down a good managerial IT job, they knew that he faced a world of mocking distrust- and now seen as a terrorist! Perhaps even his own staff were unkind to him. I wanted to pat him on the back or hug him. He must have felt so alone, but then again who am I to explain what he was really feeling or thinking.

I was his biggest threat!

Though I uttered not a single unkind word to this man, it was me he was most concerned about due to my moving around in the shadows behind him, and seemingly manoeuvring the two beside him. He turned and stared full face at me and it was now my time to gain his forgive- ness. I smiled gently at him and asked him how he was. He appreciated the moment. He turned back to his front, but as if reading my mind, he put out his hand out to receive the pen I was offering him to fill out his boarding details. He took his time and filled in the Australian resi- dent returning home section. I again offered him a cough lolly which he accepted.

We had every right to be worried, as this man’s behaviour was unsettling. However, at the end of the day all that we had achieved was to condemn this man to once again search out the isolation that he felt he could trust. I hope one day our paths meet once more and I can fill his life with a kind gesture. 

Ian Browne

Shamrock News

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