JetBlue pilot fiasco represents post-9/11 fears and a misguided approach to law enforcement

Tuesday’s events involving JetBlue pilot Clayton Osbon have resulted in a federal indictment. Osborn has been charged with interfering with flight crew personnel, and if convicted could spend up to 20 years in federal prison and face a $250,000 dollar fine. 

The approach of law enforcement officials in this case, that is the tendency to charge criminal behavior first and ask questions later, represents a shifting societal perspective towards law enforcement, criminality, and security in the post-9/11 world. Osborn’s actions were certainly out of the ordinary, alarming, and perhaps even potentially represented a danger to himself or others around him. However, his actions seem to have occurred in the throes of a psychological breakdown or a period of severe mental distress. His actions, while alarming, could not be said to be motivated by violence, or even an intent to cause others harm. In arresting this man and charging him with a federal crime, law enforcement officials demonstrate the inherent rigidity of an approach that sticks tirelessly to the letter of the law. 

Did Osbon interfere with airline personnel? Of course he did. However, was this behavior the result of a mental condition for which he needs evaluation and treatment, or a malicious attempt to cause mayhem? It seems to me that this should be the first question asked by those investigating the events. If it just so happens that Osborn happened to have the bad luck of having a mental breakdown at exactly the wrong time and place, does that mean he deserves to spend the next 20 years of his life locked away in a federal prison?

The behavior of law enforcement in this case is representative of a current trend that is potentially dangerous for freedom in a post-9/11 America that is obsessed with hot-button terms like “security” and takes an approach that can only be seen as increasingly rigid. The obsession with a legalistic approach to security and a rigid interpretation of law are the results of more than a decade of fear and uncertainty in America. 

Compounded by our collective knee-jerk reaction towards anything that happens on a plane, we have time and time again put our fears about security above the rights of individuals. Many who make this argument use examples of American citizens imprisoned or killed abroad, or surveillance of innocents by intelligence agencies, but in the JetBlue case, the issue hits home in a much more down-to-earth way. Osbon’s actions would not have been considered illegal in most contexts outside of a mid-flight jetliner, and in fact it is likely that had his breakdown occurred in a McDonalds or a shopping mall, not only would there have been no criminal charges filed, but the media frenzy surrounding the event would never have occurred. 

Our collective obsession with airline and national security constantly puts freedom at risk when applied across the board with no consideration for circumstance. In a democratic society that purportedly upholds ideals such as “innocent until proven guilty,” a psychological evaluation of Osbon’s mental health should come prior to an indictment. Rather than beginning criminal proceedings and forcing Osbon to plead the case of his mental health in a court of law, law enforcement officials should instead make such an evaluation prior, so as to prevent charging a man with a crime if he is in fact innocent of wrongdoing.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with protecting the American people, but in this case a true approach based on protection would send Osborn for mental and psychological evaluation rather than to a jail cell. Let us focus on real security – saving the lives of individuals, rather than the false sense of security we can achieve by prosecuting a man for being mentally unwell at the wrong place at the wrong time.