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US Policy Appears to Single Out Arab, Muslim Travelers

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

Critics say new airport rules could be discriminatory

Civil liberties advocates are joining Arab and Muslim American groups in expressing concern over the government's recent decision to single out travelers from more than a dozen mostly Middle Eastern countries for increased scrutiny.

Critics of the policy argue it could lead to practices that are both discriminatory and ineffective.

The Obama administration announced in January that citizens of 14 predominantly Islamic nations who fly to the United States must undergo enhanced screening at airports, including full-body pat-downs or body scanners.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined the new measures at a White House news conference.

"Every individual flying to the United States from anywhere in the world who has an itinerary or passport from nations that are state sponsors of terrorism, or countries of interest, is required to go through enhanced screening," said Napolitano. "In addition, the majority of all other passengers on U.S.-bound international flights will go through random threat-based enhanced screening." All citizens from the targeted countries must receive a pat-down and an extra check of their carry-on bags before boarding U.S.-bound planes.

All citizens from the targeted countries must receive a pat-down and an extra check of their carry-on bags before boarding U.S.-bound planes.

The enhanced security measures were introduced after the arrest of a Nigerian man who allegedly tried to set off an explosive device on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day. Under the new rules, all citizens of Nigeria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen must receive a pat-down and an extra check of their carry-on bags before boarding planes bound for the United States.

Citizens of Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria - nations the U.S State Department considers 'state sponsors of terrorism' - face the same requirement.

Dennis Parker, director of Racial Justice Programs at the American Civil Liberties Union, thinks the new airport security rules are bad policy. He says there is no way to predict the national origin of a terrorist and that many terrorists have come from countries not on the list.

Parker believes policies such as racial profiling and invasive body scanning for all travelers not only violate American rights and values, but also divert valuable resources and attention from countering the real threats posed by Al Qaida.

"Al Qaida has proven to be very successful at adapting to the measures that we take and there is no reason to believe that they would not do that here," said Parker. "There are, in fact, measures that can be taken that look more at the individual threats that would be more effective and the Christmas bomber is a good example of that. There was a vast amount of information that he was a threat that was not taken into consideration."

Parker urges the Obama Administration to reconsider the new airport security policy. "There are a whole lot of things that could be done without sacrificing people's privacy, without - however inadvertently - sending a message that we appear to be targeting Muslim countries," he said. "And simply to say that 'because many of the terrorists have been Muslims, you should examine all Muslims' is going to result in a waste of resources and I think a negative effect on the view that Muslims throughout the world may have [of] the U.S."

Some believe the policy is at odds with President Obama's stated goal of forging improved relations with the Muslim world, based on mutual interest and respect. Arab American Institute President Jim Zogby believes the U.S. risks alienating Arab and Muslim American communities that could prove essential to protecting the nation from the terrorist threat.

Arab American Institute President Jim Zogby believes the U.S. risks alienating Arab and Muslim American communities that could prove essential to protecting the nation from the terrorist threat.

"I am afraid that it would have negative impact because in our polling what we find is one of the issues that stands out is the treatment people get when they come to America, and the fear they have of negative American treatment of immigrants, so this is an issue to pay attention to," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

Zogby also warns that sweeping, reactive policies which include profiling based on national origin, ethnicity, religion or race also risk alienating Arab and Muslim American communities that could prove essential to protecting the United States from the terrorist threat.

The Transportation Safety Administration denies that the new regulations amount to racial profiling. TSA spokesman Greg Soule declined to be interviewed for this report, but said in a written statement: "TSA does not profile. As is always the case, TSA security measures are based on threat, not ethnic or religious background." The agency statement goes on to note that the new directive also mandates threat-based and random screening for the majority of passengers on U.S. bound international flights.

Still, the ACLU's Dennis Parker recommends that the United States adopt the practices used at Israeli airports. El Al airlines, one of the world's safest carriers, has spent many years developing screening methods based on passengers' behavior, rather than looks, dress, or country of origin.

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