Originally Published November 15, 2007
I saw what most of us did when I woke up that Tuesday morning. One tower of the World Trade Center was already crumbled in the streets of Manhattan. Smoke billowed from the windows of the other. One thing was painfully clear to me that day; nothing was going to be the same after that.
Boarding an airplane is the biggest problem I’ve experienced since Sept. 11, 2001. Flying has become more of a stressful experience for everyone, but I face a different type of challenge than many other Americans. I look Muslim. I look even more Muslim when I grow a beard. It is because of this that I feel I have been subjected to inappropriate searches and stops at security checkpoints every time I’m traveling by plane. My most traumatic experiences have taken place in Los Angeles’ international airport, LAX.
Although I understand the importance of airport security due to the increased terrorist threats against commercial air travel, I do not agree with the tactics employed by the Transportation Security Administration to handle “suspicious” passengers. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, I have not gone through one security checkpoint without being held at least for a second round of searches by TSA agents.
The agents are sometimes amiable and courteous in their procedures, but too often I’m subjected to belittling remarks and demeaning actions that leave me with the dirty feeling one gets when they see the ugly face of discrimination.
On one such occurrence, I was traveling from LAX to Dallas for a connecting flight last March. I was stopped and told to empty anything containing metal, foil or plastic from my pockets into a tray to put through the X-Ray machine. Already having placed my shoes, belt, wallet, cell phone and everything else that I thought would make the detector go off in the tray, I didn’t remove a wad of one-dollar bills that was in my pocket, creating a conspicuous bulge the agent was starring at.
He asked me to empty out my pockets again after the metal detector, sure enough, went off when I tried to walk through. We engaged in a strange dance as I did the two-step backward through the metal detector again as he stepped forward towards me, guiding my movement with his plastic-gloved hand.
He told me to remove what I had in my pocket. I replied that I only had cash there and I wasn’t comfortable pulling it out in front of everyone, exposing myself to the risk of being pick-pocketed. I offered to show him what I had if we could just step out of the view of other passengers. He demanded that I remove what I had in my pocket again, this time with a raised voice.
I was asking for humanity from a robot. He already had an idea of how he was going to deal with me and made this judgment from something I have no control of. I told him his behavior toward me was unjust and unnecessary, hoping for some compassion.
“It’s going to get a lot worse than this,” the security agent said as he avoided making eye contact with me.
He was right. I was then guided through to a glass box that sits in between two lanes of passengers ,who were staring judgmentally at me as if I was already guilty of a crime. I waited there for some time as the agents were standing around, apparently not doing anything while I was starring at the clock, hoping my flight wouldn’t leave without me. I was told to empty my pockets again and was searched for a second time by another agent.
The ordeal at the metal detectors lasted just over forty-five minutes, from the time I entered the line to the moment I was released. My travel mate made it through the same checkpoint in less than ten minutes.
The walk to my seat in the airplane was the most eerie part of my flying experience. People who had just seen me in the glass cage at the security check were now seeing me walking through the plane they were sitting in. Some of the women on the plane looked at me with fear in their eyes, others made an effort to look away. The men gazed at me with anger and heightened alert. Their stares were unmistakable. They wanted me to know that if I tried anything, they would be ready. They didn’t know, or even care, what I was really about.
I have since submitted a complaint through the TSA’s website utilizing something called DHS-TRIP, or Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. I clicked the boxes with the grievances listed as, “I am always subjected to additional screening when going through an airport security checkpoint,” “I was detained during my travel experience” and “I feel I have been discriminated against by a government agent based on race, disability, religion, gender, or ethnicity.”
“DHS TRIP is designed specifically to help travelers improve their travel experience and correct inaccuracies. It may not resolve all of your travel-related concerns in the future,” a notice on the DHS site listed in a disclaimer.
The inability to solve the problem through the program was disheartening. I would think that better training for dealing with passengers would be a start for the TSA, but nothing like that was listed on the screen. I am left to believe that there is only one just solution to this problem; racial profiling at the airport should be stopped.
Even after going through the trouble of contacting the DHS in hopes of clearing up my flying problem, I was still stopped when I took a flight this past summer. I told the security agent that searched me that I filled out the DHS-TRIP form online and that there shouldn’t be any problem. While the man, who was of Armenian decent, searched me, I asked him frankly why I was always searched when boarding flights. His reply left questions in my head about our government’s record keeping of citizens.
“You’re on a list,” he said.
“I’m on a ‘no fly’ list?” I asked.
“No. If you were on a ‘no fly’ list you wouldn’t be able to fly,” he said.