Saturday, November 26, 2011

Flying While Islamic Is the New Driving While Black

One of the sadder legacies of 9/11 is the legitimization of cowardice in the name of prudence. True, both political parties are trying to out-macho each other with respect to foreign policy, but when it comes down to real, day-to-day existence, Americans behave like the schoolyard bully confronted with an antagonist who doesn’t just meekly hand over his lunch money.

We’ll drive way too fast for the conditions, even after having one beer too many. We’ll eat crappy “food” with levels of saturated fat, sodium, and sugar so high that just talking about them can cause heart attacks. We’ll swagger around talking about how tough we are because “we” managed to capture or kill the likes of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.

But ask us to get on a plane that might also be carrying someone named Mohammed or Abdul, and we’ll cheerfully relinquish all our Constitutional rights and meekly slink into the corner with our proverbial tail between our legs while some idiot with a TSA (which, contrary to popular opinion, does not, in fact, stand for “Terminally Stupid and Arrogant”) badge ostentatiously goes through the motions of “protecting the public.” The agency does this by invading our privacy, fondling us, proclaiming our toothpaste a potential weapon, and generally doing everything possible to instill a feeling of Exceeding Great Trepidation.

Trouble is, it’s all a charade. The system itself acknowledges that all the shoelessness and shampoo confiscations don’t mean anything: what else is a no-fly list, or a random (or not-so-random) search at the gate if not a tacit admission that any serious terrorist with an IQ above room temperature can get past the security screening without breaking a sweat? I’ve been saying this for years, of course. Here’s me in 2005:
The idea that someone who can pass through security can still remain a threat is in fact an admission that the security screenings don't work except as a cosmetic deterrent. It is difficult to go a month without the news that some test of security at some airport has demonstrated conclusively that the average TSA screener lacks the training, the intelligence, or the vigilance to actually thwart a real threat. We'd be better off hiring out of Central Casting: at least they'd look like they might be able to stop a terrorist. Of course, news reports that yet another fake bomb made it through security at a major American airport are slowly gravitating towards the back of the newspaper, because it no longer shocks us that airport security is intrusive and demeaning, but completely ineffective.
But we continue, as a nation, to pretend that the false security offered by TSA is “worth it” somehow. It is not.

Of course, our collective cravenness is really a manifestation of xenophobia more than anything else. Homeland Security and all its various permutations exist for the sole reason of feeding the populace’s quaking terror at The Other. Oh, sure, they’ll annoy the rest of us—virtually anyone who has travelled very much at all will have been subjected to some form of humiliation to distract the agents from what a pathetic job they have re-affirm the security of the nation. But it’s the spectre of actually sharing an airplane with (gasp!) a Muslim that can be counted on to legitimize the most outrageous over-reach of authority.

I remember flying home from a conference in New York several years ago. As it happened, I was seated immediately behind two men who clearly fit the profile of a “terrorist,” at least as conjured up in the fevered imaginings of a TSA agent: young, obviously middle-Eastern, male. One was bearded; the other had a thick mustache. I don’t recall their names, but they were stereotypically Arab: Ali and Farooq, or something like that. They were laughing about the difficulties they’d had in passing through security, based solely on the way they look. And, hearing them speak, I can assure you that the fear and trembling of the security folks was entirely visual: two more readily identifiable New York accents would be difficult to imagine.

But the latest victims of TSA over-reaction weren’t New Yorkers. They were students from the United Arab Emirates who were removed from a Charlotte-to-Washington flight and questioned for nearly five hours, embarrassing them (despite the fact that they had clearly not done anything to deserve this treatment) and—of course—inconveniencing every other passenger on that flight, not to mention the family, friends, and business associates of everyone who should have been in DC in time for dinner but didn’t arrive until close to midnight. And for what?

Well, according to WSOC-TV, U.S. Airways is calling it simply a “security issue” that led to the students’ being led from the plane and all their bags being re-screened. (Again, how about we screen them right the first time?) The story says that “passengers reported they heard the group talking about airplanes and the military while on board. Sources said that's when some passengers reported them.” It’s unclear exactly who initiated the process of removing the UAE students, but it appears to have been the airline, whose employees are perfectly well trained to distribute tiny packets of pretzels, but perhaps not to judge the severity or likelihood of a potential terrorist threat. Forgive me if I don’t choose to live my life based on the prognostications of the most wild-eyed, xenophobic paranoid in the room.

I do understand that a student named Yaqoob Al-Shamsi is probably a higher risk than a grandmother named Cindy Robinson would be. But there are literally hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who pose precisely zero threat. A little acknowledgment of that would not come amiss. What is troubling here is that the Islamophobia of the more ignorant members of society will eventually create a self-fulfilling prophecy. This seems to be the lesson of Guantánamo, which has apparently more than once transformed petty nuisances into card-carrying Bad Guys. And if we keep down the present path, the next Hadef Al-Dhaheri won’t simply be upset that “they treated us different than the others”; he’ll want to do something about it. It’s a delicate balancing act, and we need someone with a little more sophistication in charge of the operation.

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