The story of Aditya Mukerjee, a Hindu-American who spent three hours detained at JFK for triggering an explosives alert at a TSA checkpoint is a troubling story and cause for deep introspection. I must admit, even my first reaction was “better safe than sorry.” But that was the wrong conclusion–to defend the government and defend JetBlue is to defend paranoia, intimidation, and bigotry. I will not defend such conduct, and you shouldn’t either.
Some, like Flying with Fish, are trying to pick at Mukerjee’s story and undermine his credibility. Here’s a guy who was traveling alone, opted out of a full body scanner, set off a weapons detector multiple times, acted belligerently, changed his story, and whose body language emanated vibes of guilt.
And when you look at the story from that angle, it becomes easy to accept why Mukerjee was not permitted to fly on JetBlue. But put yourself in his shoes for a moment.
Imagine being confined in a room, against your will, for several hours, because the authorities do not trust their own screening technology. Imagine being groped repeatedly in sensitive areas and being aggressively patted down like a criminal. Imagine being denied water and food. Imagine being interrogated, with the same questions repeated over and over. Imagine finally being cleared only to be told by JetBlue that they did not trust you and therefore you could not fly.
Now imagine your skin is dark and on that basis, the authorities conclude you must be Muslim and therefore suspicious. Imagine the authorities questioning your religious convictions while oblivious to the fact that Hinduism and Islam are not the same faith–
“How religious are you? Would you describe yourself as ‘somewhat religious’ or ‘very religious’?”
I was speechless from the idea of being forced to talk about my the extent of religious beliefs to a complete stranger. “Somewhat religious”, I responded.
“How many times a day do you pray?” he asked. This time, my surprise must have registered on my face, because he quickly added, “I’m not trying to offend you; I just don’t know anything about Hinduism. For example, I know that people are fasting for Ramadan right now, but I don’t have any idea what Hindus actually do on a daily basis.”
Because we know how important Ramadan is to the Hindu faith…the irony is rich.
Imagine being told–
You’ll have to understand, when a person of your… background walks into here, travelling alone, and sets off our alarms, people start to get a bit nervous. I’m sure you’ve been following what’s been going on in the news recently. You’ve got people from five different branches of government all in here – we don’t do this just for fun.”
When a person of your background? What background is that? I can’t recall reading about a Hindu terrorist in the news lately…
But he kept setting off explosive detectors!
Yes, he did. And he’s not the only one. The number of ETD false-positives are surprisingly high. What is the number one culprit? Soap. Should we just avoid that when going to the airport? Or should the TSA scrap this error-prone technology that has never actually “caught” a terrorist?
But he looks like an Islamic terrorist!
What does an Islamic terrorist look like? Seems to me that the Tsarnaev brothers, carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings in the name of Allah, were light skinned. It also seems to me that if casting suspicion on every person with dark skin is particularly problematic as we simultaneously remember the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
But he was combative! He changed his story!
Imagine being confined in a room against your will and being interrogated by different people for three hours. Imagine being barked at and denied water and food when you had not eaten in over 12 hours. I know I would become flustered. And that’s the point–heavy handed police tactics can make anyone look guilty. That was the impetus for the Warren Court’s Miranda decision.
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The point here is that a man unfortunately came into contact with a product that triggered the TSA’s explosives swab test. A throughout pat-down was justified. But after an extensive search of his person and belongings turned up no incriminating evidence, authorities just decided that Mr. Mukerjee had to be hiding something. Mukerjee’s testimony suggests it was because of his appearance and religion and I agree with him. I’ve seen it myself.
So where does that leave us? Sadly, many continue to look at “brown” people in the United States and assume they are not really American. And though I do not give them a pass, I would expect nothing less from the law enforcement and TSA wannabee law enforcement types we encounter at airports.
What disappoints me most in this story is JetBlue’s actions. Similar to United’s refusal to apologize for throwing me off a flight for taking a picture of my seat, I understand that apologizes are few and far between in the corporate world. But there is no defense for this kind of action:
As they patted me down for the fourth time, a female TSA agent asked me for my baggage claim ticket. I handed it to her, and she told me that a woman from JetBlue corporate security needed to ask me some questions as well. I was a bit surprised, but agreed. After the pat-down, the JetBlue representative walked in and cooly introduced herself by name.
She explained, “We have some questions for you to determine whether or not you’re permitted to fly today. Have you flown on JetBlue before?”
“Maybe about ten times,” I guessed.
“Ten what? Per month?”
“No, ten times total.”
She paused, then asked,
“Will you have any trouble following the instructions of the crew and flight attendants on board the flight?”
“No.” I had no idea why this would even be in doubt.
“We have some female flight attendants. Would you be able to follow their instructions?”
I was almost insulted by the question, but I answered calmly, “Yes, I can do that.”
“Okay,” she continued, “and will you need any special treatment during your flight? Do you need a special place to pray on board the aircraft?”
Only here did it hit me.
“No,” I said with a light-hearted chuckle, trying to conceal any sign of how offensive her questions were. “Thank you for asking, but I don’t need any special treatment.”
She left the room, again, leaving me alone for another ten minutes or so. When she finally returned, she told me that I had passed the TSA’s inspection. “However, based on the responses you’ve given to questions, we’re not going to permit you to fly today.”
I was shocked. “What do you mean?” were the only words I could get out.
“If you’d like, we’ll rebook you for the flight tomorrow, but you can’t take the flight this afternoon, and we’re not permitting you to rebook for any flight today.”
So let me get this straight. He’s cleared by the TSA to fly, he graciously answers the insulting questions of the JetBlue corporate security officer, he affirms that he will follow crewmember instructions and does not need any special assistance, and yet he still is deemed too unsafe to fly? But wait, he can fly the following morning, as if one day will will cleanse him from his threat to security? What irony.
JetBlue owes Mukerjee an apology, not a cowardly defense of their ignorant staff. Shame on JetBlue for perpetuating disgustingly ignorant stereotypes and succumbing to fear.
Returning to the golden anniversary of Dr. King’s heralded speech on equality, I cannot help but to lament that equality on the books matters little when encountering ingrained prejudice and fear. Anyone who defends the actions of the authorities and the conduct of JetBlue defends an America that degrades our most sacred building block of the Republic. May we fully realize the immortal declaration that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
If you think my words are too melodramatic, think how you would feel if you were denied boarding based on your religious creed or skin complexion. There’s nothing histrionic about that…