As I was getting ready to board my plane on a trip to Los Angeles from Detroit on Dec. 11, I had an interesting experience. I entered the airport at around 7 a.m. on that Tuesday morning and went directly to the ticket desk. I was tired. I had been a little bit nervous about my upcoming appearance on “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” and had not really gotten much sleep the night before.
The woman behind the ticket desk greeted me and I gave her my identification. My electronic ticket had been reserved the day before by the staff of “Politically Incorrect”. I was slated to leave Detroit at 9 a.m., arrive in Los Angeles by 11 a.m., do the show at around 6 p.m. and then leave Los Angeles at 10 p.m. on a red-eye flight back to Detroit that would arrive at around 6 a.m. Detroit local time. I had to complete this trip all in the matter of one day because I needed to be back in Ann Arbor in order to take an exam on Dec. 12.
As the woman behind the ticket counter checked me in, she struck up some conversation. “So, where are you going?” “To L.A.,” I responded. She looked at my ID again. “Are you some kind of star?” “No,” I responded. She kept working on my reservation. “So, why are you going to L.A.?” I still wasn”t sure whether this was some kind of formal questioning or just casual conversation. “I”m going to be on a TV show,” I told her. “Oh, so you are some kind of movie star?” “No, I”m not,” I replied. She finally finished taking care of my ticket, handed me my boarding pass, informed me I was flying first-class and directed me to where I should go next. “Security is right that way, sir. There”s a chance you may randomly checked when you get there.”
I made my way over to security and things were moving pretty smoothly, faster than I had thought they would move in fact. This was my first time flying since Sept. 11 and I, like everyone else, had heard and read all the stories of security checks at airports taking much longer than before. At any rate, my turn came. I placed my computer bag on the conveyor belt, emptied my pockets, and prepared to walk through the metal detector. I walked through, and much to my relief, the detector stayed silent. Right after I walked through, as I looked to retrieve my belongings, the woman manning the detector looked right at me and yelled, in a quite loud voice, “Male possible!” “Male possible” means something like “male possible terrorist,” but I imagine security experts feel like somehow they make onlookers feel better if they don”t insert the last word. I was directed to another security guard who conducted a body search of me, feeling under my belt, in my shoes, and running a metal detector over my whole body numerous times. This whole process took about five minutes. Once I was told that I was “clean” (which I happened to already know), I was allowed to gather my computer bag, which had been rummaged through quite a bit, my pocket belongings, and make my way to my departure gate.
When I got to the gate, I saw a couple of men standing by the check-in counter. They were looking a bit suspicious, but I didn”t think much of it. The woman at the counter called for first-class passengers to board, and I made my way to board the plane. I boarded, sat down in 2A, put my bag under the seat in front of me and prepared for a long nap. Right after I put on my seatbelt, two men came to my seat. “Are you Mr. Zahr?” “Yes,” I replied. “Could you come with us?” They proceeded to take me off the plane and back out onto the jetway. I realized right then that these were the same two men that had seemed suspicious to me when I arrived at the gate. “Mr. Zahr, you look a bit suspicious today,” they told me. They went on to tell me why I looked so suspicious: an expensive first-class ticket and a one-day trip back and forth across the country. They asked me what my plans were, and whether or not I could explain all these suspicious circumstances.
I quickly explained to them what I was doing, and after about seven minutes or so of their trying to get proof that I was telling the truth, of which I had none, they finally decided to believe me. They took down the information from my ID and allowed me to re-board the plane. By this time, all the rest of the passengers had boarded the plane and I had the honor of walking by all of them staring at me. I can only imagine what they might have been thinking as they saw me being questioned by federal agents as they boarded.
So, I was profiled. For no good reason, I feel. Perhaps some of the circumstances around my flight reservation were “suspicious,” but if my name was John Smith and I was wearing a business suit instead of having an Arabic name with a t-shirt and jeans, I”m sure the federal agents would have simply assumed I was on business without asking any questions.
Profiling is pointless. I can only imagine how many Arab-Americans like me have been taken off planes and questioned simply because of our names or appearance. And I have not heard any stories in the news of any of these “profiling” exercises leading to any thwarts of any attacks.
So, why do the majority of metro Detroit Arab-Americans favor racial profiling, according to a recent Detroit News poll? If we were to believe Pete DuPont of the National Center for Policy Analysis, it is because “Racial profiling seems somehow different after Sept. 11 Our communal sense of security seems to have changed our view. The consensus seems to be if there is a clear and present danger, racial profiling can be permissible.”
I have a quite different conclusion. Perhaps the majority of Arab-Americans are responding to attacks against their own patriotism and love for America. Out of this fear, many are saying that racial profiling is acceptable. It is funny how those who favor racial profiling could use any response from Arab-Americans to bolster their position. They could use DuPont”s reasoning or if Arab-Americans were found to be against racial profiling, they could use that to call Arab-Americans even more “suspicious.”
The government”s racial profiling practices against individuals and organizations have yielded nothing in the past few months except for the dragging through the mud many reputations, scores of secret trials and usurpations of civil rights that can all be described as much less American and much more McCarthyist.
Amer G. Zahr can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.