Your recent recount of the events on June 29th sound extremely worrying and troublesome to me and I am terribly sorry that you and your family had to go through such a horrific experience. I would, however, like to take a moment to make some clarifications about the state of Homeland Security. I have pondered long and hard about whether I should write this letter, but I have mulled over it for three days and still do not feel comfortable until I have shared my opinion on the topic:
I worked in the World Trade Center 2, on the 38th floor, at the time of September 11th. Many of the victims of that horrific day were not American. In fact, the US was attacked at its most international, and most innocent point — a building where hardworking individuals from all over the world, including Asia, came to work and earn a living through honest means. To me, an attack of such magnitude on more than 3000 civilians who have had nothing to do with politics is much more shocking than one on the Pentagon, which is the hub of US politics and military planning (yes, Bush ignored the 300 page report in August of that year entitled “Osama Bin Laden will attack on US soil”). More importantly, I want to address your questions about “racial profiling” and how the US is handling the issues of “Homeland Security”.
Since we are swapping stories, I thought mine would also shed some light. This is the story of a domestic flight I took with a colleague of mine on February 4th, 2002 from Miami to New York. Dev, an Indian, with black hair, brown eyes and olive skin was traveling with me on the 6 am United flight. Upon showing our tickets at security, we proceeded straight to the gate as we had arrived late for our flight. When we reached security, Dev put his bags on the conveyer, took his shoes and belt off, and slowly walked through the metal detector. Without beeping, he was pulled to the side where one agent started to run his machines up and down Dev's spread-out arms and legs.
Without asking him any questions, two of the security agents, who looked like they had been just fired from the DMV, said they needed to take him to the bomb detection area for further inspection. He gathered his bags and was escorted, he told me later, downstairs to a room with a giant size x-ray machine. There he was treated very nicely, told to take his shoes off and walk through the machine. After that scan, they brought him outside, ran paps on his laptop, and dissected everything in his bag.
After confiscating his plastic Brooks Brothers collar stays and three Q-tips, the non-verbal searching ended, and they told him he could go, in Spanish. He ran upstairs to the gate, got his boarding pass, and was stopped a third time at the gate. Here they ran over this body with hand-held metal detectors, and plastic gloves. Not a single hello or how are you was spared on him. Upon finally boarding the flight, he joined me, panting and sweating.
After the plane took off, I glanced at my boarding stub to check my frequent flier miles. I noticed the name on the stub was one “Mr. Henry Sarefian”. I looked at my seat. I was in12A. I looked at the boarding pass again. Mr. Sarefian was assigned to seat 12A. I showed the stub to Dev who stared in bewilderment. He asked how I had gotten this stub — I told him the agent at the gate had given it to me. I had told her my name and presented my passport (I insist on flying with my passport even domestically because I find it ridiculous that you can board a plane with a Drivers License.) She had looked at my photo and my name Sara Sefeed and printed a boarding pass for Mr. Henry Sarefian. In my hurry, I had not noticed, and proceeded to board. After checking my passport and boarding pass, the boarding agent asked me to step to the side for a routine security check.
The security agent asked for my boarding pass and ID and performed her scientific two-second test and also verified my documents. She patted me down and then proceeded to take items out of my suitcase with robotic motion, glancing into the distance with a bored expression on her face. After completely crumpling all my suits and misplacing all my belongings, she shoved the open suitcase towards me, without a word, as if to say, ” Here — clean it up”. I zipped up my bag, thanked her and proceeded back to a new boarding agent. He also had done a check of my name and passport.
The final checkpoint came on the plane, when the stewardess who had greeted me warmly, took my boarding pass. She read it and guided me to my seat. This meant there were five counts of different gate agents, boarding agents, security agents and airline personnel who had failed to recognize that I was not a “Mr.” and that my name “Sara Sefeed”, printed in bold letters in my passport, had not in any way matched “Henry Sarefian”. It was outrageous. Could nobody read? Could anybody speak? Did they even know any English? Worst yet, did they not know the difference between a man and a woman?
I am sure the gate agent had looked at my first name, assumed it was my last name, and upon finding the first record starting with “Sar”, she had identified my boarding pass. The reality was that I had passed five different sets of eyes with a fake name and for all they knew, cross-dressed as a woman. It was unspeakable. I was furious and wanted to report the incident to CNN, BBC, NPR, and anybody else who would listen. This was security? When we landed, despite my reluctance, Dev made me call United Airlines to report the event. He insisted that poor Henry had probably just missed his flight and now United thought he was already in New York.
I tell this story because I believe the real security problem in America is a deep and rooted problem of education, and common law that I lacking all around us. It has to do with the poor laws of travel and the unqualified people who run the day-to-day with no regard for passenger security. Because everything in the US is privatized and there is no unison among the different states, companies, and airlines, no one person seems to have jurisdiction or responsibility over anything.
The country is vast and fragmented. It boggles the mind that no one in the US has ever been required to travel with a proper ID, such as a passport or Citizenship ID. If citizenships do not mean anything, then why do we bother with them and why is it so difficult to become a citizen of certain countries? US border patrol and security personnel have no incentive or desire to make intelligent conclusions about passengers. If you have ever traveled anywhere outside of the US, you will notice that to board a plane in most places, you will need a passport. Gate and security agents actually look you in the eyes and ask a few questions to find out if you are who you say you are.
Non-Americans get their passports issued at a very early age, because traveling without one is very difficult. In Iran, for example, you may travel domestically on your birth certificate, which is a booklet similar to a passport with a photo ID, fingerprint, and important personal information. Even in the EU, where borders have become a bit more relaxed due to the “union” the primary identifier of a person is their passport, or Citizenship ID, not the color of their eyes, their hair, or their skin. More importantly, in all of these countries, I dare say, I have come across intelligent agents who ask questions like ” where are you going, why and for how long”.
My family and I lived in France for a long time with Iranian passports and we had to report to the police once a year to renew our visas and provide an update on our activities. This is required in almost any country anywhere in the world, when you are a guest.
In America, once you have entered the country, you can get lost among the cattle or in flight school, and nobody bothers to ask why. I still meet Americans, adult Americans, who have never owned a passport in their lives. I have never experienced this anywhere else in the world. Sadly, with fifty bucks and a face, you can get a “Driver's License” and hop a 747 Jet plane into a skyscraper. Since when is a Driver's License anything other than a license to drive a car? Shouldn't travel by plane, require a document all its own. In other countries, they call that a passport.
An intelligent system would be one that allows for all citizens to confidentially exchange data with an agent or officer. With today's technology and capabilities of building global, real time databases, would it be so hard for the government of the United States to have a file on every person that tracks their information and perhaps intelligently looks for odd behavior? How about if they employ more qualified agents who can actually think for themselves? How about teaching them what behaviors to look for and what questions to ask, instead of making mothers drink their own breast milk? Did you ever think that with all the problems that we can highlight for the FAA, how many more there remains behind the scenes?
The answer also does not lie in the proposed “racial profiling” that has been a hot topic post 9/11. The entire concept of “racial profiling” is completely ineffective and unscientific. Racial profiling implies that you are discriminating against an entire group based on their “race”. But what is race? Most proud Iranians will tell you that they belong to the white “Aryan” race — that is actually where the name “Ee-ran” (not “eye — ran”) comes from. According to “race theory”, Arabs and Jews are from the same Semitic race. Arabic and Hebrew share the same language root, the “Semitic root”.
Farsi, the language spoken by Iranians, is an Indo-European language, coming from the same group as English, German, French and Hindi. So what is race? It is nothing other than a dated anthropological premise, which classifies people based on hair type, skull shape, and skin color. This supposed “theory”, which has defined three categories (white, Negro and yellow) is complete fiction and totally irrelevant in a world where people from all over the world are traveling and moving around more than ever.
The reality is that no human group exists today that can boast having two original ancestors and having descended from them without any adulteration of the primitive stock through mixture. We, the human race, are not pure, i.e., strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a race. And the reality is that in a country as “Aryan” as Iran, there are people from all over the “Empire” with different skin types, hair types, eye colors, nose shapes and personalities. This can also be said of a country so free and diverse as the United States.
But never mind the obvious reasons why your “Middle Eastern” terrorists are so similar and evil. I, an Iranian, born in Tehran have green eyes, light skin and light brown hair. You would never “profile” me under anything except maybe a wasp from the Upper West Side. I know plenty of Italians, Spaniards, Irish, Serbs, Croatians, Greeks, Portuguese, French, and Russians who have black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. And even within the Arab community, should there not be a difference between a Saudi, an Egyptian, a Jordanian, a Kuwaiti, or an Iraqi? How do we “profile” them?
Instead of trying to make the world a Mickey Mouse Park where things fit neatly into boxes and security agents can pick and choose “terrorists” with color-coded instructions from the government, shouldn't we put some real brains behind the plethora of terrorist networks that continue to terrorize our daily activities all over the world? The question then is not would I mind “racial profiling” as a “Middle-Easterner” but rather do you mind if they ask you a few relevant questions at the airport next time you board a plane.