Sunday, June 09, 2002

Since Sept. 11


Friendly U.S. skies push profiling

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        Profiling is a blunt instrument that wallops us all eventually.

        Especially when it's wielded by amateurs.

        Profiling — using someone's looks, ethnicity, accent or foreign birth to decide if they're a criminal or security risk — isn't just immoral and illegal, it's ineffective.

        Some civil rights lawsuits filed last week illustrate my point.

        Five lawsuits claim that passengers of Middle Eastern or Asian appearance were kicked off four airline flights because passengers, flight crews or airline workers felt uncomfortable, not because the men posed security risks.

Of our own

        Four of the men are U.S. citizens; the fifth is a permanent legal resident. Two are of Arab descent.

        In each case, the men underwent security searches before boarding their planes. After they were ejected, each was placed on a subsequent flight, with no additional security measures or questions asked.

        Michael Dasrath, a 32-year-old U.S. citizen who was born in Guyana, South America, was one of those passengers. A financial analyst for J.P. Morgan Chase in New York, he was on a plane, waiting for it to take off from New Jersey to Tampa on Dec. 31, when he overheard a woman tell the captain, “Those brown-skinned men are behaving suspiciously,” he said.

        He and two passengers he didn't know — a professor from Sri Lanka and a doctoral student of Filipino descent — were told to get off. They weren't searched but were immediately put on the next flight.

        “The staff on the ground were apologetic and obviously embarrassed,” Mr. Dasrath said at a press conference.

        In another case, Arshad Chowdhury, a U.S.-born citizen whose parents moved from Bangladesh in the 1960s, was trying to get to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles when he was barred from a plane.

        The pilot found a “phonetic similarity” between his name and someone on a watch list, he said. “My name is the South Asian equivalent of Smith; it's ubiquitous and secular.”

        He was surrounded by four police officers, two FBI agents and two airline agents as they searched him and his bags. After 40 minutes, the officers and FBI agents told him he was cleared to go. The airline agents weren't convinced, however, and wouldn't reschedule him on another flight, he said. They booked him onto a competing airline.

Lingering suspicion

        A month later, Mr. Chowdhury tried traveling for Thanksgiving, but a different airline informed him there was a security block on his name, which had been fed into an FBI database distributed to every airport. It took Mr. Chowdhury a month to get the block removed.

        Mr. Chowdhury had worked in the World Trade Center and for Deutsche Bank across the street for several years. He said he supports extra airport security.

        “The attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on my colleagues, my livelihood and me,” he said.

        But, he added, “I would like to see law enforcement conducted by trained professionals rather than by untrained, angry and frightened civilians.”

        The airlines deny that they've discriminated. Federal regulations allow captains to remove passengers who “compromise the safety of the flight,” they say.

        I understand airlines' efforts to allay passenger fears. But more and more U.S. citizens are foreign-born. The number has tripled since 1970.

        So, if pilots and airline workers and passengers are the profilers, many more of us could end up missing our flights.

        Call Denise Smith Amos at 768-8395, or e-mail damos
       @enquirer.com.

       



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