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Security diversions at the checkpoint: A Sikh perspective

Prabhjot Singh

Leaving Seattle recently, I was in for a surprise. As six of my colleagues and I stood in line for an airport security check, we were all told to step aside for secondary screening. They wanted to search our turbans -- mandatory religious articles of our Sikh faith. Each of us was pulled out of line while other passengers stared at the group being corralled. As several screeners investigated our turbans, the wasted time and resources made me uneasy. While they were busy checking turbans, other people could walk through the checkpoint with just about anything under their dress shirts or slacks. The turban actually fits more tightly on my head than pants do around my legs. 

After the 9/11 attacks, Sikh Americans worked closely with the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration to create a screening policy for religious headwear that protected our national security concerns while respecting religious freedom. The procedures allowed for Sikh turbans to be patted down, but only if there was some specific cause for alarm (i.e., they had alarmed the metal detector or a wand). That policy was suddenly and unilaterally revoked on August 4, 2007. The Sikh Coalition heard about the policy change when dozens of Sikh Americans filed complaints about being singled out for “mandatory turban pat-downs” and having to remove their turbans -- akin to a strip search for Sikhs -- at various U.S. airports. 

Later that year, in response to our concerns, the TSA changed its stance. Headwear was incorporated into the existing bulky clothing policy. We were told by TSA officials that while the new policy allows screeners to use their individual discretion in checking religious headwear, it does not single out turbans. At two meetings in 2009, TSA officials reiterated that the policy is not intended to profile Sikhs by mandating turban screenings. 

Still, since 2007, the Coalition has gathered reports from Sikh travelers and issued quarterly TSA report cards based on screening trends. At several airports, all screeners are exercising their discretion in the same way: checking Sikhs 100 percent of the time. I flew more than 100,000 miles last year, and my own experience matches these findings. Contrary to official TSA communications, I have had multiple screeners and checkpoint supervisors tell me that the policy to screen turbans is in fact mandatory. 

The Christmas Day terror plot demonstrated just how dangerous this bulky clothing distraction can be. The young attacker didn't "look" the part in terms of race, religion, national origin, bulky clothing or anything else on screener checklists. While he cleared security with a deadly weapon small enough to fit in his underclothes, a “random” Sikh could have been standing in a glass box at a U.S. airport awaiting secondary screening. 

The TSA turban screening policy allows wide discretion to the nation’s 43,000 screeners to decide when to pull a Sikh aside for secondary screening. This discretion, coupled with a lack of internal controls, means that the policy’s implementation on the ground allows for unchecked religious profiling. Besides diverting precious resources, the TSA policy also creates screening patterns. Terrorists can decipher such obvious patterns and use them as an advantage in perpetrating an attack on our country. The Christmas bomber wasn’t going to wear a turban to clear security because he knew that would mean a sure secondary check. 

To keep our country safe, the TSA needs to stop using profiling and checklists as a proxy for solid intelligence information. Between the Dirty Bomber, the Shoe Bomber, and now the Christmas Day Bomber, we know that airline terrorists have no common skin color or dress. The disaster averted on Northwest 253 was our country’s Christmas gift, and hopefully a wakeup call to the TSA. It is time to implement more intelligent policies at our checkpoints.


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