10th July 2004
In recent weeks, a number of people of Asian or Arab origin have been forced off flights in Europe and America. What these cases illustrate goes far beyond legitimate policing and security precautions. This is vigilantism.
ISOLATED INCIDENTS? Or a glimpse into the future? A sign that a new offence of "travelling while Asians," as a senior British Asian police officer put it, has already kicked in? That de facto "racial profiling" of air passengers is already taking place?
In recent weeks, since an alleged plot to blow up American airplanes came to light, there have been a number of incidents in which people of Asian or Arab origin have been forced off flights in Europe and America because they were seen as a potential security threat even though they had been cleared by airport security like other passengers and were later found to be completely innocent. (As I write this a Mumbai-bound U.S. plane returned to Amsterdam on Wednesday shortly after take-off because of alleged "suspicious" activity on board.)
The standard explanation is that the person in question was behaving "suspiciously" and other passengers did not feel comfortable travelling with him or her on board. In none of these cases, is it clear what precisely they were doing that aroused such serious suspicion that they needed to be offloaded despite having been through the most stringent security before boarding the aircraft.
Grounds for suspicion have ranged from the appearance of a person or dress to speaking a language other passengers did not understand or saying prayers before boarding the plane.
The most widely reported case is of two Asian students, Sohail Ashraf and Khurram Zeb, who were forced off a Manchester-bound flight from Spain while returning home after a holiday on August 16 when their white co-passengers refused to fly with them alleging that they may be terrorists. They were "escorted" out of the plane by airport police and questioned for several hours.
Their offence: they looked like Asians or Arabs; appeared to speak in a language that sounded like Arabic; "glanced" frequently at their watches; and wore clothes that did not suit the local climate at the time. This constituted "suspicious behaviour" in the eyes of other passengers who were able to work up enough rage to force the airline to off-load the pair. In the event, they turned out to be absolutely innocent. The two, who were born and brought up in Britain and speak English like any U.K.-born person would, described as unnerving the experience of being treated as terrorists and marched off at gunpoint.
"I can understand why people are so panicked. But just because we are Muslim does not mean we are terrorists ... We might be Asian but we're just two ordinary lads who wanted a bit of fun," Mr. Ashraf said.
A spokesman for the airline said: "There were two passengers on the flight who came to the attention of the other people because they were apparently acting suspiciously. The flight attendants were sufficiently concerned to alert the crew who in turn informed the security authorities at Malaga airport."
In another incident at Manchester airport, a British Asian pilot Amar Ashraf was removed from a U.S.-bound flight and questioned by the police who reportedly asked him whether he knew why the U.S. authorities wanted him to be off-loaded. According to him, the aircraft was ready to take off when its doors were reopened and he was told to leave on grounds that no standby passengers were allowed to fly that day.
"They told me they weren't taking any passengers on standby but I think it was racial profiling ... I feel this was discrimination," he said. Why, he asked, was he questioned by armed police if the only reason he was offloaded was that no standby passengers were being taken.
Then there was the case of a doctor from Canada, Ahmed Farooq, who was reportedly "escorted off" a United Airlines flight in Denver after reciting prayers that other passengers regarded as suspicious. In another recent incident, Azar Iqbal, a British Asian, was questioned by U.S. immigration officials as he stepped off a Delta airlines flight in Atlanta and deported back to Britain.
Other incidents have included women wearing the hijab being evicted from flights and passengers objecting to travelling with a "bearded Muslim," according to a pilots website.
In these columns I have joined issue with those who criticise the anti-terror police for keeping an extra-vigilant eye on people from certain ethnic groups. I still maintain that if there is a consistent pattern of extremists or terrorists coming from a particular community or ethnic background then that community or group would inevitably be under greater scrutiny. But what these cases illustrate goes far beyond legitimate policing and security precautions. This is vigilantism.
These incidents have a terrifying echo of the lynch mob mentality whereby a group of people are able to have someone removed simply because they do not like the look of a person or the way he or she is dressed or the language he or she speaks. Commenting on the August 16 incident on the Malaga-Manchester flight, The Independent said in an editorial: "What happened on this flight was nothing less than mob rule. Instead of standing up to the irrational fears of passengers. This does not seem to be an isolated incident. Websites used by pilots report similar cases of individuals being singled out to quell the concerns of other travellers."
Moreover, it makes nonsense of airport security checks. What is the point of pre-boarding checks if a passenger can still be barred from travelling simply on the whims of other passengers? Even as there is widespread concern over this trend towards vigilantism, it is surprising how many people actually think it is okay. The argument is that in the new post-9/11 and 7/7 world, old rules do not apply, and however distasteful such experiences might be we must "come to terms" with them given the risks involved in ignoring a perceived threat.
"Political correctness can get one killed," wrote an American reader in a letter to a British newspaper adding: "If our governments or the airline industry will not keep us safe, then we must take these things into our hands. Vigilantism is not nice: neither is dying on an exploded aircraft."
It was British Prime Minister Tony Blair who, after the July 7 London bombings, declared that in the new climate of terrorism the "rules of the game have changed" and it was time to suspend the old notions of human rights and individual freedoms. I am not suggesting that he was inciting the "mob" but such statements from people in his position have the unintended effect of fuelling paranoia and encouraging the notion that everything is fair in the "war" against terrorism or "Islamic fascists," to borrow a term deployed by U.S. President George W. Bush. This notion then translates itself — as we have seen in recent weeks — into a licence for people to take any action they please to enforce the new "rules of the game."
Increasingly, any criticism of police or public over-reaction to a perceived threat from terrorism is either glibly dismissed as old-fashioned political correctness or met with the condescending response: yes, we know what you mean but what do you expect people to do when anyone can turn out to be a terrorist?
Fair enough. The threat of terrorism is real and there is need not only for vigilance but for extra-vigilance against groups or communities that have allowed themselves to be hijacked by extremists. But that still does not mean that people can take the law into their own hands against those who look different from "us" or look like "them." Or are we going back to the era of witch-hunts when any "strange" looking woman was taken to be a "witch" and lynched?
The point is: would two white men, conversing in a little known European language or "glancing" frequently at their watches, have suffered the same fate that two Asian men did on that flight from Malaga to Manchester? The question often asked in such situations is: but what if they were terrorists? The answer is: but what if the person sitting next to them who had aroused no suspicion had turned out to be a terrorist?
There is no cure for paranoia. Politicians and police have contributed to this climate of paranoia by constantly raising the spectre of a terrorist attack. This is virtually handing over victory to terrorists who can claim to have succeeded in disrupting normal life and behaviour. It also benefits the xenophobes who have always regarded foreigners as fifth columnists. Now they can target them with impunity.
Europe is barely starting to recover from its terrible history of ethnic and racial prejudice. Let that history not be repeated in the name of fighting terrorism.
I picked this site because it summarized all the incidents nicely.
racial profiling is okay IMO but harming and terrorizing innocent people is not.In fact this will lead to disintegration of western societies . you can't go to someone ,beat him up,treat him like a dog and then tell him to respect you and to accept your values. bash me for opening this thread.I don't care.I just to know you from you people whether such methods should be continued or countries of western authorities should come up with news methods of preventing terrorism. as I type Danish authorities have arrested 9 people for alleged plans to commit terrorism.
BTW,what happened to those Canadian terrorist suspects?sent to jail ?
Not sure what happened to those Johnny Canucks, probably in jail right now waiting to be tried.
Yeah, it sucks. But guess what, with the exception of one psychopathic hick, every major terrorist act comitted against the United States has been done so by an arab muslim. It simply makes no sense to check nine year old white kids, or 75 year old asian grandmothers.
Old school pimp
10th February 2004
Racial Profiling is okay you say? Wasn't it innocent until proven guilty, not probably guilty but he might be innocent?
Who's your buddy
6th September 2004
Captain AmerikaRacial Profiling is okay you say? Wasn't it innocent until proven guilty, not probably guilty but he might be innocent?
Well come on use your heads people Ma Deuce is right. Who do you want to check at the airports, Mrs. Jones and her 4 year old child or or Ahmed El-Naiza who looks a bit sketch? I mean serioulsy think about it. The world at this point had become to politically correct. We're too afraid of hurting the "minorities feelings." In fact in new york several months ago due to an elevated threat to New York's subway systems the tightend security. But the police where told NOT to randomly search people who looked to be of Middle Eastern decent because they didn't want it to appear like they were doing any racial profiling. Now that's absurd. At any rate this has nothing to do with being inoccent until being proven guilty it has to do with who poses the greatest risk.
16th April 2005
No, Capt Amerika is right in that "innocent until proven guilty". Of course, many terrorist suspects don't receive trials, so they are guilty without proof. Perfect example is that of the "Tipton Three" who were held for nearly three years at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial, or access to a lawyer. And then released as they were innocent.
masked_marsoeNo, Capt Amerika is right in that "innocent until proven guilty". Of course, many terrorist suspects don't receive trials, so they are guilty without proof. Perfect example is that of the "Tipton Three" who were held for nearly three years at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial, or access to a lawyer. And then released as they were innocent.
Two different things really. Holding someone for a years without a trial is wrong, but I think it is perfectly fine to racially profile at airports and subways. It's logical, doesn't harm anyone, and will only cut into your time for a short while. And you've also got to realize that it isn't broad racial profiling. Not EVERY Muslim is looked at as a possible suspect. Only those who have fit the bill of previous attackers. Usually young single men. And chances are if you just look casual you won't be searched either.
16th April 2005
Yeah, and I'm sure you'd love being strip searched because of the color of your skin too.
masked_marsoeYeah, and I'm sure you'd love being strip searched because of the color of your skin too.
I would have no problem if it turned out I fit the bill. If it was ONLY the color of my skin that would annoy me. But if I fit the bill for what most terrorists looked and acted like then I wouldn't have a problem with it. It's not only race that is looked at.
And remember this. If you are about to fly a plane into a building or blow a plane up you will likely be a little nervous, and people will be able to see that. So it's not like they are looking closely at all Muslims. They are looking closely at young, single male Muslims who look a bit shakey or nervous.
16th April 2005
Once maybe. But if it happened twice. You get checked before you get on the plane, after you get off, perhaps on your way home. And it will be race, as it can be hard to tell someone's religion by just looking at them in most cases.
Their offence: they looked like Asians or Arabs; appeared to speak in a language that sounded like Arabic; "glanced" frequently at their watches; and wore clothes that did not suit the local climate at the time.
Snipes With Artillery
22nd March 2005
I think we need to get better people in charge of security. Perhaps set up a training program with El Al(that is the name of Israel's airlines, right?), so that the TSA knows who to look for. People acting odd, or nervous, or young males traveling alone, with a one-way ticket. Stuff like that.