- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

Profiling Middle East airline passengers for pre-takeoff questioning seems so logical since September 11 that backers include blacks who despise racial profiling and one Muslim who sued United Airlines for bumping him from a flight.
Arabs, and those who look Middle Eastern, complain of humiliating intrusions since 19 Muslim hijackers committed the most deadly crime in U.S. history and plunged the nation into war in Afghanistan.
Although some black leaders feel events torpedoed chances that a racial profiling bill will pass this term, several polls show wide public support even among black travelers for the new tactics, particularly when the FBI's 22 "most wanted terrorists" all are Arabic men.
"An Arab-looking man heading toward a plane is statistically more likely to be a terrorist," said Slate columnist Michael Kinsley, who concedes his conclusion goes against his grain. "It's hard to argue that helping to avoid another September 11 is not worth pretty small inconvenience and embarrassment."
Airlines have not backed off in the face of complaints by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) that passengers are being removed from planes because they look Middle Eastern.
"Our values of diversity and tolerance speak for themselves. We can't compromise on those values. But pilots have some latitude in that regard if something might compromise the safety and security of the passengers on board," said United spokesman Chris Brathwaite.
"The pilot does not like how you look," Dallas computer engineer Vahid Zohrehvandi was told when American Airlines bumped him in late September.
Mr. Zohrehvandi, a U.S. citizen born in Iran, got on the next flight after showing airline officials he is a longtime frequent flyer, but he missed his brother's wedding.
In a similar situation on Sept. 22, M. Ahsan Baig, a Mill Valley, Calif., computer specialist, was bumped from United Flight 288 to Philadelphia, ostensibly because the pilot saw him talking furtively to another man.
"Profiling didn't happen here, they just bumped him from the flight because they didn't like his looks," Mr. Baig's San Francisco attorney, Daniel L. Feder, said yesterday. "What was shocking is that there was no procedure, no scrutiny, no due process. You're off the flight."
Asked why ethnicity should not be a criterion when those being sought share one ethnicity, Mr. Feder said, "In order to protect people's civil rights."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, responds that thousands of people killed September 11 lost all civil rights.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll of 1,032 adults found 58 percent are deeply suspicious of people they believe to be Arabs and support requiring all Arabs, including U.S. citizens, to undergo intense security screening before boarding aircraft to help prevent terrorist attacks.
"Better safe than sorry," said Anthony Orr, 35, of Claremont, N.H.
As of yesterday, 81 percent of 5,276 travelers told CNN they had not experienced "inappropriate profiling in security checks" while 16 percent (833) said yes and 3 percent (180) were not sure.
Mr. Feder claims his Pakistani client, who has lived eight years in the United States, fully supports singling out risky passengers when decisions are based on Federal Aviation Administration computer factors and government procedure.
Mr. Feder's client sued United Airlines on Monday in San Francisco under state civil rights laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused Oct. 1 to consider racial profiling claims by blacks in the upstate New York city of Oneonta.
Federal courts consistently allow broad latitude for security screeners to prevent hijackings, and have ruled that FAA regulations pre-empt state laws that affect airline "services." Mr. Feder said his research shows that won't apply to Mr. Baig's case.
"When pilots put people off planes because of how they look, I don't think there is any issue of profiling, per se. It's the public humiliation," said Mr. Feder, conceding Mr. Baig's 90-minute delay in reaching Philadelphia was insignificant.
FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said pilot latitude is narrowly defined.
"We have a regulation that allows pilots to take passengers off the airplane if they present a safety threat to the operation of the aircraft, but it cannot be based on their appearance just sitting there looking suspicious," Mr. Takemoto said.
He said passengers are profiled by an FAA program linked to airline reservation systems. That program, Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS), passed muster by the Justice Department Civil Rights Division.
"At this stage, we don't see any evidence of racial profiling by the FAA to the extent they are relying on the CAPPS system," said American Civil Liberties Union official Barry Steinhardt.
Mr. Takemoto said CAPPS selects passengers for close personal attention and an explosives-scan of their baggage solely because of travel patterns, then chooses others at random, a category enlarged after September 11. "It flags passengers based on criteria we can't go into except to say it is based on travel patterns," said Mr. Takemoto.
The formula is known to include previous destinations, whether a ticket is round trip, lead time for reservations, and whether payment is by cash, check or credit card. It has been reported the manner of dress and passenger nervousness also are selection factors.
At some terminals, including Baltimore-Washington International Airport, such passengers are shunted to "security check-in" counters for a quiz by trained agents.
Mr. Feder said his client is an observant Muslim who visits a mosque daily and may have been motivated in part by heckling and harassment he and his veiled wife experienced in a mall after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
"After Timothy McVeigh was identified as the primary subject you didn't see the airlines pulling off young white males," Mr. Feder said.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide