July 21st, 2004

More on airlines, fear, and racism

This started as a comment but then got too long. I, too, read the Salon article, various blog posts, and the original article… and while I share Paulette’s concern about racial profiling, I just don’t think it’s fair to equate the article–or the concerns it rests on–with xenophobic expressions along a continuum that ends in anti-Arab hate crimes. Just because this is being used by talk radio idiots to fuel hysteria does not make telling the story an ipso facto act of racism. For reasons I’ll get into in a moment, I found it interesting and important. And pace the fact that I almost always share David’s love for Patrick Smith’s prose stylings, I think he takes some cheap shots at Jacobsen.

Though the tone of the article is undeniably hysterical in places, and though I’m sure some details were embellished in their retelling, I’m unwilling to dismiss the issue out of hand. The author has some pretty decent credentials (time spent in the Middle East, initial friendliness with the passengers in question) that keep the story from feeling like a racist screed.

Nobody, I believe, has debunked her assertion that it was this incident that led to the increased onboard security that I found so unsettling last week. I can attest personally to the renewed seriousness with which the airlines are taking the “congregating in the aisles” issue. My Alaska flights to and from Newark last week were logistically quite difficult due to the “no queueing” rules. There were about 8 extra announcements about when the lavatories would be locked, how long until the meal service that would block access to the lavs, and how absolutely no passengers from coach could enter the first-class cabin for any reason. This applied to white little me as well as everyone else.

The attendants were very keyed up about it, and their anxiety made me anxious. I almost posted it about it at the time. I’ve been flying all my life, but it’s to the point where I need to get a prescription for Xanax for when I fly. Between the chaos at the airport and concerns about security (coupled with the physical constraints of not being able to walk around the cabin), I’ve just been a basket case lately on long flights.

Annie Jacobsen may turn out to be a nutcase… but even if you are paranoid, sometimes they (in the global sense, not the Arab-specific sense) really are out to get you. And some of the details in the story (the men in question taking cell phones and cameras into the lavatory) would make me nervous too. Whether or not the men were Syrian, I can honestly say. Frankly, I would have found this article worth reading if it were a group of 14 Swedes!

I travel extensively for business (though much less than I used to) and I have never seen Arab or Arab-looking passengers singled out (though I know it happens). On the other hand, I have repeatedly seen people who were completely incapable of causing any harm hassled, somewhat gleefully, by the TSA drones. This included me when I was in a leg brace–TSA screeners made me laboriously unhook my brace, something that not even the super-suspicious Russian screeners required. I once saw a (lily white) man in a full-body brace have to struggle with his shoes to comply with the screener. And I have seen literally dozens of 70+ passengers remove shoes, belts, braces, splints, and even a western shirt with too many snaps. But, as the Annie Jacobson points out in her follow-up article, it’s ridiculously easy to get metal knives at airside restaurants. The half-assed TSA approach only feeds peoples’ fears (and the pettily sadistic randomness of their application of the “rules” is conditioning Americans to do whatever a person in uniform says to–but that’s another story).

I would argue that the real problem with screening in the nation’s airports is not that it is too selective– it is that it is not selective enough. El Al is the model of airline security, and while skin color alone is not a flag in their system, they pay tremendous attention to national origin, passport stamps, and a list of questions that they ask you if you meet any combination of age, itinerary, and occupation. There are plenty of stories about innocent travelers who have been denied boarding on El Al until their stories could be confirmed. If you are serious about screening, that sort of approach makes complete sense to me. Much more sense than body-searching feeble grandmothers of any ethnicity.

My #1 fear when flying is the precise scenario the woman mentioned describes– a bomb assembled on board from components that look harmless alone. Richard Clarke’s book describes a threat that caused the Clinton administration to cancel trans-Pacific flights for a week. The intelligence mention plastic explosive, wristwatches, and bottles of contact lens solution, and mentioned that the bombs would be hidden in lavatories. Of course the airlines resisted efforts at the time to make permanent changes to security protocols… too costly.

Now that we, the taxpayers, have bailed out most of the major carriers (with nothing in return) and employ TSA screeners directly as Federal employees, I think it’s ridiculous that security is still as lax (and capricious!) as it is. Given the ridiculousness of the screening protocols, if I had seen the activities this woman describes seeing, I would have been freaked out too. Whatever the color of the instrument-bearing bathroom vistors. (I am, after all, from Oklahoma City… where we know that bombers come in white as well as brown.) And certainly musical instruments, orthopedic shoes, and fast-food bags should be checked as thoroughly as my laptop and shoes are.

The real tragedy is that we didn’t “done it right the first time” with regards to airline security. There was no political will to look at what works and how it could be implemented here–it was just done in a completely slapped-together “don’t worry folks!” kind of way. Airline security is still a joke–just a joke that takes a lot longer than it used it. We will almost certainly see more airplane bombings, which will only increase the risk of racist profiling. How much better if we proactively identify threats and deal with them, to prevent bombings in the first place. Until that happens, people like Annie Jacobsen and I will be weirdly attuned to the lavatory habits of our fellow passengers. I really hope that doesn’t put me in Rush Limbaugh’s camp… but if so, the only think to do about it is medicate me heavily before taking me to the airport.

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