The recently foiled terrorism plot in Britain has once again raised questions about whether airport security personnel should begin screening airline passengers based on race and religion. At least one U.S. Congressman has publicly called for extra screening procedures for people of Middle Eastern or South Asian heritage. That proposal has provoked angry denunciations from civil rights groups.
Security checks have become more rigorous at U.S. airports. Personal belongings and carry-on bags are being more closely scrutinized. And passengers are not allowed to bring liquids or gels on board.
This latest restriction has come in the wake of the recent foiled plot in Britain. Terrorists allegedly planned to blow up U.S.-bound airliners over the Atlantic Ocean with liquid explosives carried on board in hand luggage.
British authorities have formally charged 11 suspects in the conspiracy. Twenty-three people were arrested, many of them British Muslims of Pakistani descent. A militant in Pakistan is among those wanted in connection with the plot.
The arrests have renewed calls by some for closer scrutiny of passengers of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. Republican Congressman Peter King said, "I think it is time to end political correctness. To me, if a person is of Middle Eastern descent it is legitimate for the screener to ask more questions."
But civil rights advocacy groups -- such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington -- have denounced these calls as "racial profiling". Arsalan Iftikhar is CAIR's legal director. "What's wrong with it is that -- from the FBI, Department of Justice all the way down to state and local law enforcement -- officials have said time and time again that racial profiling is not an effective law enforcement technique."
But terrorist attacks, such last year's bombings of London's subway system, have heightened suspicions -- especially since those responsible were Muslims of South Asian descent.
Such events lead to increased racial profiling, according to Iftikhar. "We tend to see peaks and valleys in terms of international watershed events, whether it is the U.K. terror plot or the war in Iraq or the Bali, Madrid or London bombings. These sorts of major international events usually are then followed by stricter scrutiny of American Muslims."
A random sampling of air travelers provides a decidedly mixed opinion about the issue of profiling. "I think it is important that everybody gets checked but I don't think it is inappropriate to take race into account," said one traveler.
"To stereotype a certain group, I don't think is fair," said another. "It is kind of like racial profiling. But then again I think if you weigh safety against somebody being inconvenienced, I would pick safety," thought a third person.
U.S. officials say racial profiling is not practiced by airport screeners. Instead, they focus on specific behaviors to determine if a passenger should be further scrutinized.
Earl Morris is with the Transportation Security Administration. He says, "What we do is we look for individuals who are displaying behaviors that are consistent with someone who may be deceptive or nervous or something of that nature. It has absolutely no bearing, or part of the focus has nothing to do with race, religion or anything of that nature. We are looking for people and behaviors."
And this may prove effective. But for now air travelers are on heightened alert as they prepare to board their planes and embark on their journeys.