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Unfriendly Skies

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Arshad Chowdhury describes what happened to him at San Francisco Airport one morning in October with precision, calm and all the aplomb expected of a Carnegie Mellon MBA student with a Wesleyan undergraduate degree. At least that is how he starts. But as he talks, his voice betrays growing agitation. It becomes clear that this Connecticut-born son of a cardiologist and teacher is bewildered, angry and more than a little shaken. "I still believe in the integrity of the system," he says. "At least I want to. But this stunned me."

About the Author

Bruce Shapiro
Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation, is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma...

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The controversy over the Bush Administration's most extreme antiterrorism measures--military tribunals, secret evidence, taping of attorney-client conversations--has to a large extent obscured the far more widespread impact of the post-September 11 climate on Muslim Americans going about their routine business. Consider Chowdhury. He did not end up in handcuffs or in secret detention. Instead, he was victim of the lingering airport-security debacle. Yet for that very reason his story is emblematic.

For Chowdhury, October 23 began as a routine day of air travel. It was a Tuesday. At a beginning of the weekend, Chowdhury had left Carnegie Mellon to visit a friend in San Francisco. Now he was headed home to Pittsburgh and, mindful of post-September 11 security, had arrived at San Francisco International Airport with plenty of time to spare.

Chowdhury's flight on Northwest, he recalls, was supposed to leave at 12:25 PM. He cleared security and arrived at the gate. Then at noon, someone called his name over the public address system. At the desk, the airline's agent and supervisor asked him to produce his identification. What they said startled him: "They said the pilot saw a 'phonetic similarity' between my name and someone on a terrorist list."

Phonetic similarity? Under other circumstances, Chowdhury might have laughed. His last name is the South Asian equivalent of Smith, common in various spellings among Muslims and Hindus alike. He didn't laugh, of course. For one thing, the events of September 11 had struck Chowdhury hard: He had worked in the World Trade Center at Bankers' Trust-Deutsche Bank for two years, and knew people who were working there on September 11. Plus, as Chowdhury absorbed the notion of being singled out by a pilot for his phonetic profile, he found himself surrounded by two Northwest security guards and four police officers, soon joined by two FBI agents. A crowd had gathered and was starting to point at a 5-feet-4-inch, South Asian-looking young man surrounded by armed cops and soldiers. He worried aloud about missing his flight. The terse answer from a Northwest agent: "If we find something, you're not going anywhere, buddy."

Over the next half-hour, Chowdhury was searched and his bags rummaged. The FBI and police took his ID, ran their background check and handed it back to him assuring him there was no problem.

A relieved Arshad Chowdhury headed back to the gate, where the final passengers for Pittsburgh were still boarding. Up until that moment, Chowdhury was annoyed and inconvenienced, but he was willing to shrug it off. It was on his return to the gate that Chowdhury suddenly found himself reeling. "The last passenger was through the door, and I was next. Instead, a flight attendent came out, closed the door and said, 'I'm sorry, sir. This won't make sense to you, but you can't fly with us.' "

"You can't fly with us." The Northwest supervisor affirmed the flight attendant's words. At this point, Chowdhury was trying hard to maintain his cool. "I'm still surrounded by all the police and security and FBI. So I ask the FBI agent, am I a security issue? No. The police? No. Can the airline do this to me? The police again: 'It's a private company.' " The pilot's "phonetic profiling" of Chowdhury would be allowed to rule the day.

In theory, the federal government--and in particular Secretary of Transportation Mineta--have taken a hard stand against airline ethnic profiling. But in reality, the FAA has done little to prevent such arbitrary judgments. On November 19, the US Department of Transportation's Consumer Practices Division issued guidelines "Concerning the Air Travel of People Who Are or May Appear to Be of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian Descent, and/or Muslim or Sikh." The DOT says travelers "may not be subjected to inspection, search, and/or detention solely because the persons appear to be Arab, Middle Eastern, Asian, and/or Muslim or Sikh." But that "solely" stands as a huge loophole through which can flow all manner of arbitrary suspicion, and the DOT offers no more specific guidelines. In Chowdhury's case it meant that "The FBI and police had cleared me--and it didn't matter. I wasn't flying, all because some pilot didn't like my name."

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