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Unfriendly Skies

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Kurt Ebenhoch, a spokesman for Northwest, declines comment on the specifics of Chowdhury's exclusion, but he says that ethnic profiling "is not a fair characterization" of Northwest's security procedures, "which are in compliance with FAA guidelines." There is, he says, "a longstanding tradition of flight crews assuming responsibility for passenger safety."

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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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To a young journalist in the early 1980s Doug seemed already to have lived an impossible number of lives.

Sandy Hook opened a rare opportunity to change not just a few laws but the basic terms of debate over public safety and social responsibility.

The kind of anti-Muslim bias from a flight crew experienced by Chowdhury, it must be pointed out, may be all the more likely because the FAA has for so long neglected basic air safety as thoroughly as it glosses over ethnic profiling. In early December, USA Today (which since September 11 has published pathbreaking investigative reporting on both air safety and discrimination against immigrants) revealed that between 1990 and 2000 the FAA took no action in 90 percent of unruly-passenger reports filed by flight crews. In hundreds of cases they didn't even bother to open an investigation. Among them were physical assaults on passsengers and crew, grotesque sexual harassment and knife-wielding threats.

Pilots and flight attendants, on the downstream end of on-the-cheap security run for the benefit of airlines, are rightly convinced that the system does not protect them. And after September 11--with legislators focused on corporate bailouts rather than quick passage of airline-security legislation--flight crews found no greater cause for confidence. "Those of us who steeled ourselves enough to return to work were jumpy and shaky," says Rodney Ward, a US Airways flight attendant and union steward now laid off. "With the FAA and our corporate management offering no suggestions of what to do, we began developing our own strategies." He finds it unsurprising--if deplorable--that the vacuum has led some pilots or attendants to give free rein to bigotry.

The flight crews' fears, it turns out, are backed up by hard data, as evidenced in those December 2001 USA Today reports on FAA negligence.

In this sense, civil rights advocates and air crews share common ground. Cases such as Chowdhury's, says Washington, DC, attorney Christine Lopez, a veteran of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division now at Relman & Associates, a civil rights law firm in Washington, D.C., is "a security system based on the wrong criteria." As she points out, ethnic profiling makes all passengers less safe by diverting attention from more meaningful screening and reforms.

Arshad Chowdhury was finally able to get home on a different airline, US Airways--though not without further hassles. When he arrived at the US Airways gate, Chowdhury learned there was a "security block" on his name--automatically filed because of his earlier enounter with the police. He was nearly denied a flight once again when a senior US Airways supervisor grasped what had happened, overrode it and got him on board. "By the time I got on board," says Chowdhury, "I just wanted to disappear." (In fact, that "security block" would remain on Chowdhury's name for another month, until it was removed after he was nearly kept off of yet another flight.)

As wrongful profiling goes, it could have been a lot worse. Chowdrey's cool temperament kept him from overreacting and being arrested at the airport. Yet the impact on him was profound--particularly, he finds on reflection, the collusion of all those police, FBI agents and airline officials with a pilot's groundless judgment. "I can't begin to tell you how helpless this makes me feel," he says. He has found himself scanning his bookshelf, wondering if there is anything that could get him in trouble. He has noticed his parents in Connecticut, both Bangladeshi immigrants who arrived thirty years ago, suddenly staying home. "They have always felt the United States was a safe place. Now it hurts them that they find themselves second-guessing their decision to stay." He has started to hear similar stories from the South Asian community in Pittsburgh.

Chowdhury is not alone. Civil rights attorneys report a flood of air-travel discimination complaints. And if what Chowdhury and others describe involves the small change of day-to-day life--his cool temperament kept him from being arrested at the airport--it is important to remember that an accumulation of such small-change disruptions can add up to lives lived in considerable fear. One Indian Muslim kept off a flight under similar circumstances, for instance, says he has advised his sons to cut their hair so they look less "Middle Eastern," has switched jobs at his company to avoid travel and has canceled his family's holiday plans to avoid air travel.

More than anything else, such stories demonstrate how ill prepared the system is to protect Muslim Americans--particularly those more vulnerable than an educated, middle-class business student. Indeed, it is clear that despite President Bush's initial antidiscrimination rhetoric and his laudable visits to mosques after September 11, the Administration is now leading by example in precisely the opposite direction. Muslim communities are getting the picture. As Chowdhury himself points out, his status as a native-born, educated, middle-class citizen gives his complaint an authority not felt by more vulnerable immigrants. Says Chowdhury, "What I keep hearing in the South Asian community in Pittsburgh are a lot of stories about people having experiences like this who just decide to keep their heads down. They just don't want to draw attention." With the entire Muslim male immigrant population in effect "profiled" by Attorney General John Ashcroft's order for 5,000 interviews nationwide, official tolerance for senseless ethnic profiling appears to be growing even as September 11 recedes.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An early draft of this story was inadvertantly posted without the author's approval for several hours on December 19. This draft contained several significant errors, including misidentifying the airline involved. The Nation regrets the errors.

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