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Florida family physician Bob Rajcoomar, MD, buckled his seat belt and sat back for a relatively short flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia last summer. But the flight turned out to be far from uneventful.
A passenger in coach caused a ruckus, showing signs that he was mentally unstable. A flight attendant asked two U.S. air marshals aboard the plane to help settle the man down.
The air marshals hurried toward the man, handcuffed him, dragged him to the first class cabin and seated him next to Dr. Rajcoomar.
Dr. Rajcoomar asked for and received permission to move to a different seat and did so.
Then, Dr. Rajcoomar said, the air marshals turned toward passengers with weapons drawn. They made it clear that no one was allowed to move.
The passengers were held at gunpoint for the last half hour of the flight, Dr. Rajcoomar said. When the plane finally landed in Philadelphia, he was relieved that the flight was finally over.
Little did he know that his nightmare was just beginning.
As the physician stood up to leave the plane, an air marshal pushed him back into his seat and told him to put his hands over his head. Dr. Rajcoomar obeyed.
Then he felt cold, steel handcuffs snap shut around his wrists.
Air marshals escorted him from the plane and turned him over to the Philadelphia police.
"I didn't know what to think," Dr. Rajcoomar said. "Twelve people came to lug me out of that aircraft. It's scary. I've lived here so long, it was a real shock for me."
Dr. Rajcoomar is a naturalized U.S. citizen of Asian Indian descent. He's lived in North America for 40 years and in the United States for 25 years. He's a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.
"It was just a horror show," he said. "I was in total shock. I couldn't even speak for a while."
When he could speak, Dr. Rajcoomar asked the air marshals why he was arrested.
One of the men, he said, answered, "We didn't like the way you looked."
But Dr. Rajcoomar said the other air marshal quickly jumped in and said, "We didn't like the way you looked at us."
For four hours, Dr. Rajcoomar sat in a dirty cell at a police station on airport grounds. Then police and air marshals freed him.
No charges were filed.
No satisfactory explanation given.
Dr. Rajcoomar went to the terminal to find his wife, Dorothy. She was seated in a different part of the plane and didn't see his arrest. She was waiting for him, worried, unsure of what had happened to her husband.
The decision to fight With the nightmare behind him, Dr. Rajcoomar was torn. Should he put what happened behind him or fight to ensure that what happened to him never happened to anyone else?
Some friends told him to just move on, but "I felt I had to say something so other people would be spared of the horror," Dr. Rajcoomar said.
"There were far-reaching consequences on freedom and all the things our forefathers fought for in this country," he said.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Dr. Rajcoomar took on the newly formed federal Transportation Security Administration over the way its employees treated him.
"Dr. Rajcoomar was subjected to the worst kind of race profiling," said Stefan Presser, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's legal director.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania told the federal government it would sue unless the TSA apologized, compensated the Rajcoomars and changed the way it trains air marshals.
In an unusual settlement, under which the terms were allowed to be made public, the government in July agreed to write an apology letter to the Rajcoomars, pay them $50,000 and make changes in the air marshal training program, Presser said.
A spokesman for the TSA declined to comment on the case because the settlement must be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
But the ACLU and Dr. Rajcoomar are happy with the terms.
"This ought to send a wake-up call to Americans that the policies and procedures in place since 9/11 are affecting American citizens," Presser said.
Dr. Rajcoomar said he believes some level of justice was achieved and is pleased at the amount of attention the case received in local, national and international papers and on national and international television.
"I hope we have made a statement that a little man can still tell the government you are messing something up and you can have some improvement come out of that."
And Dr. Rajcoomar hopes no else will experience what he did.
Making a difference Sometimes when physicians enter a courtroom, it isn't to fight a medical malpractice suit. Sometimes it isn't even about medicine.
Sometimes doctors, Dr. Rajcoomar said, need to stand up as leaders in the communities in which they live. "If you can't speak out in this country, then where can you speak out?"
Presser said Dr. Rajcoomar's willingness to right a wrong is a credit to him and to the medical profession. "If he had simply been interested in getting money, he could have gotten a large award. But he was much more concerned about preventing this from happening again."
Presser said other physicians should not be afraid to stand up to the government. Post-9/11 laws, particularly the Patriot Act, could have far-reaching implications for physicians, he said. In particular, law enforcement officers can go to federal court, tell a judge they are investigating someone and receive the court's permission to obtain someone's medical records, according to the ACLU legal director.
"If more Americans understood what the Patriot Act said, they would be appalled," Presser said.
If doctors were to take a look at the law in contrast to medical principles, he said, he hopes they would see a problem and be spurred to action.
Much like Dr. Rajcoomar's own fight against the system.
© Copyright Tanya Albert, AMNews 2003 For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .