Our Racial Problem
I know that Barack Obama's election ended all racial strife in America, but somebody forgot to tell the TSA.
Officials ordered nine Muslim passengers, including three young children, off an AirTran flight headed to Orlando from Reagan National Airport yesterday afternoon after two other passengers overheard what they thought was a suspicious remark.
Members of the party, all but one of them U.S.-born citizens who were headed to a religious retreat in Florida, were subsequently cleared for travel by FBI agents who characterized the incident as a misunderstanding, an airport official said. But the passengers said AirTran refused to rebook them, and they had to pay for seats on another carrier secured with help from the FBI.
Kashif Irfan, one of the removed passengers, said the incident began about 1 p.m. after his brother, Atif, and his brother's wife wondered aloud about the safest place to sit on an airplane.
"My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security," Irfan said. "The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window.' I think they were remarking about safety."
Serves them right, making small talk to one another on a plane. While being dark-skinned and Muslim-looking at that!
The TSA and AirTran ended up taking everyone off the plane and re-screening them and their luggage, before allowing them to take off - only without that trouble-making family. According to TSA, this is an example of the system working.
Ellen Howe, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the pilot acted appropriately.
"For us, it just highlights that security is everybody's responsibility," Howe said. "Someone heard something that was inappropriate, and then the airline decided to act on it. We certainly support [the pilot's] call to do that."
In a society suffused with the "TIPS" program and Total Information Awareness and calls to "watch what you say" and to be on the lookout for suspicious activity, this is what we get. Those cultural signifiers are not easily washed away, the urge to be "alert" and "ready" and "aware" and "on watch". And ultimately, there are very strict, not-even-subliminal definitions on who we have to watch and who we don't have to watch. And ethnicity is the dividing line.
George Bush may be leaving office, but the culture of paranoia he helped to usher in most certainly has not. And deputizing Americans to be part of a 300-million-strong network of spies has impacts on public policy, too. After all, how far is it to leap from eavesdropping on conversations at the mall to eavesdropping on phone calls? As long as you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about, from a civil liberties standpoint.
One of the biggest changes a President Obama can make, if he cares too, is in the national mood, to reject this presumption of guilt, this culture of fear, this demonization of the other, this automatic transfer of second-class citizenship. There's no kind of profiling that is more justifiable than any other. It's all part of a creeping assault on our collective civil liberties and it has to stop.