Sunday, March 15, 2009

Flying While Arab Continues to Soar

It was February 2002. I dashed from the East Room of the White House to catch an early evening flight from BWI airport to Oklahoma City to a do a press launch with then Congressman J.C. Watts, Jr. President Bush and the First Lady hosted a ceremony and reception and nearly all of 43's top cabinet members attended. Making a rare drop by was Vice President Dick Cheney.

I arrived at the airport with less than 90 minutes until my flight. I donned a rust colored leather suit with fur around the collar and wore multi-colored designer stilettos. After checking in, I went through a long security line with lap-top and purse in hand. When it was my turn to go through the check-point, I took out my lap-top and put it on the tray. I put my handbag on another tray, and added my shoes. My lap-top went through, and then my bag and shoes. Before I could walk through the metal detectors an amazingly loud siren went off with lights flashing everywhere. Everything in the airport literally stopped. I remarked aloud, "Whoa, what's that?" Suddenly, things seemingly commenced to move in slow motion, "Miss!" A large man with a crew cut pointed at me and exclaimed, "You have a bomb in your shoe!" This dude was talking to me. I was shocked. All I could think was, "Oh my God, he thinks I am a terrorist like that freakin' shoe bomber Richard Colvin Reid aka "Abdul Raheem!"

My head pounded. My heart raced, but I managed to keep my voice steady. In the face of something that could have changed my life forever, I made a wisecrack. "What's your name and where did you come from?" Big TSA dude commanded. I replied, "I just came from the White House, and oh by the way, Vice President Cheney was there too so perhaps I stepped on his heart medication?" Big dude's eyes narrowed while two other TSA officers tried to keep from laughing at my response. My shoes were tested three more times reading positive and then negative before they decided to let me go. It was clearly a mistake. No apologies were made to me. I felt numb walking to the plane.

Since 9/11, I have traveled to over 50 countries. I endured extra questioning, searches and experienced two armed security guards sit on each side of me at JFK while I waited to board the plane. On another occasion, I was asked three times in a row if I had a bomb in my backpack after it passed through security inspection. Another time when I was traveling through Schipol in Amsterdam, an immigration officer said because of my brown skin and how I looked I could swallow drugs.

As an African American racial profiling is nothing new to me. "Driving While Black" is still a common occurrence for black folks stopped by white police officers because we "look" like a criminal, drug dealer if we drive a Lexxus or SUV or heaven help us if there are a pack of black men in a vehicle. We just plain look suspicious driving in a neighbor after midnight that is white and affluent- even if it is where we live. Although African Americans have been profiled for ages, the so-called "War on Drugs" program in the 1980s heightened this form of racial profiling.
Prior to 9/11 Arab Americans, visa visitors, students, academicians and diplomats from the Middle East and Muslim World have been profiled. 9/11 spun out of control with false reasoning and claims for rounding up thousands of Arabs and Muslims because of the so called War on Terror. "Flying While Arab" became to new strategy to fight terrorism.

Any U.S. security agent who claims they stopped "Minister Muhammad Hussein Abdullah" because of what he looks like or his name for security reasons is ignorant. Security is not in the look, features or name of a person, but in suspicious behavior. Furthermore, there is no empirical or qualitative data proving this type of profiling stops terrorism. It is ineffective, counterproductive and unnecessary. The only way profiling might have a place is if it is a suspect specific exception or if there is a future-crime-specific exception.

While Public agencies condemn profiling, the message gets completely lost in translation for the common TSA federal agent or immigration officer. This is because there is no real Executive Imperative to stop it. Nor is there any efficacious cross cultural awareness training or a basic lesson in geography. Questions such as, where is Abba Dabba Doo is instead of Abu Dhabi gives one reason to pause. The stares, rude and abrupt comments, pointing and unnecessary multiple hour wait times dignitaries, Arab American citizens and visitors endure is disrespectful; particularly to countries that are our Nation's top allies and have joined us in the fight against terrorism.

In times of "war," America has a history of doing dastardly deeds of profiling. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were targeted and placed against their will in detention centers. Ronald Reagan made a public apology that resulted in the payment of over 1.6 billion dollars in restitution to Japanese Americans who suffered this humiliation.

However, with President Obama experiencing profiling in his lifetime and his laudable efforts to reach out to the Arab and Muslim World to build bridges may include more action to end profiling as a mode to fight terrorism. A move to end "Flying While Arab," will send a strong signal that US Diplomacy does not stop at check point.