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.
* * *
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…
Thank you for bring this to our attention. Indeed, it is a sad how some people think and act.
Feel sorry for the guy:(. You would have thought having the same religion as Gandhi would make you less suspect for this kind of thing:).
Why are people whose hands alarm the ETD forced into a private room? Why can’t the resolution grope be done in public?
The answer is that the TSA doesn’t want the general public to know that the resolution search is a full-blown sexual assault done with the palms of the hands, palms deep into the genitals, over the buttock, in the intergluteal cleft (butt crack) as well as over a woman’s entire breast area.
In all the years the TSA has been doing ETD searches, THEY HAVE NEVER ONCE FOUND ANYONE CONCEALING A BOMB OR ANY OTHER EXPLOSIVES. NOR HAS THIS SEARCH EVER LED TO FIND ANY EXPLOSIVES CONNECTED TO THE VICTIM OF THE SEXUAL ASSAULT.
It is an illegal search and must be stopped.
I imagine that they had to detain him long enough to get a search warrant for his apartment.
And just to prove a point, I’m a middle-aged white guy and I alerted for explosives one time going to TSA in Nashville. They asked me a few questions trying to determine the source of why I alerted for gunpowder. It was July 5, and I cleaned up some fireworks from my yard the previous day. That seemed to satisfy them and they let me fly.
I sympathize with the authorities and Jetblue on this one. I’ve had encounters with law enforcement myself (as has Matt) and the key is to stay calm. Yes, sometimes they are unfair, ignorant and even jerks but getting upset is NOT the way to defuse the situation.
Aditya’s story sounds like he inadvertently confronted the authorities “I was speechless” and his emphasis at the “obscene” nature of the search. What I take the agent’s use of the word to mean is that he might be asked to strip and didn’t want him to expose (literally) the search to other passengers. He also seemed amused at the screeners’ lack of knowledge of Hindi and Islamic customs and rather than simply saying “I’m not Muslim. I’m Hindi and I’m not fasting but simply didn’t have breakfast” he let them probe and held their ignorance against them. This is hardly the way to make friends and influence people.
In answer to Petaluma’s point: When the laserprinter bomb was intercepted in Heathrow last year it had been so ingeniously disguised that even after dissasembling the thing they STILL couldn’t find the explosives because they were hidden in the toner cartridge and the trigger was in the main unit. Thankfully, because the toner cartridge was removed the timer didn’t activate but if it had, the airport would have gone up. So finding explosives is not an exact science but considering the close calls they have had, their hyper caution is understandable.
Regarding MLK, I won’t touch that with a 10 foot pole which is the problem: I don’t feel that we can have an honest discussion about the issue because of the political hypersensitivity. I’ve been biting my tongue in these kinds of situations my whole life. I welcome the day when we are able to have a discussion about it but I don’t think it belongs here.
As a Hindu, Indian-American myself, I can sympathize. I, too, was a victim of incorrect profiling, though my experience ended up being something to laugh at more than anything else. My crime was buying hockey tickets off eBay a couple of weeks after 9/11. The lady I bought them from called the FBI on me because she was “worried about this Middle Eastern-looking guy I sold some tickets to”. The police then proceeded to do a background check on me, and called me a few days later at work while I was headed to lunch. To the detective’s credit, he realized pretty quickly the whole thing was a mistake, we had a laugh and he apologized for wasting my time, and the only real consequence was that my friends had to wait 5 minutes for me to join them for lunch. I’ve been fortunate not to have had any problems with airport security or CBP over the years, though after the hockey ticket incident, I was paranoid for a good while that I’d turn up on a watch list somewhere.
PolishKnight – I think you gloss over something rather important. You seem to excuse the law enforcement and security apparatus’ ignorance of religion and culture, but if we are to assume that people of a certain religion or culture pose more of a threat and therefore require extra scrutiny (a position I have a problem with, but I’ll roll with it to make my point), then shouldn’t law enforcement receive the appropriate training to properly identify those that meet those parameters? Sorry, but I expect better of our leaders than that. Also, while I don’t know Mr. Mukerjee’s background, you have to realize that for some Hindus, especially those that grew up in India, insinuating that you are a Muslim, through ignorance or otherwise, is considered highly offensive, especially given the country’s history of problems with communal violence. It’s easy to say he should have just kept his cool, but I can understand why he would be offended when someone appears to be disparaging his religion.
I thought there were only three branches of government? He said “5”??!
It seems like they just delayed by the one day delay because it would throw off any potential plans a person had due to the fact that terrorists seem to plan events on specific days. You delay them one day, then there whole plan goes arwy. The real question is I hope they paid for his hotel and taxi due to their one day delay. He might have got a 3 star or better hotel out of it.
Alot of anger towards the TSA ought to instead be directed at Congress. Congress authorized the TSA and gives them quasi law enforcement powers. Priot to Congress introducing TSA legislation airports conducted their own private security. Now, if one lobby’s Congress to stop the TSA or only votes for candiates that vow to repeal the TSA enacting legislation, then the problem is solved. Instead of focusing on the executive branch and antogonizing them for doing their jobs which are authorized by the law, libertarians should focus on the legislative branch.
As I said, I won’t touch the main profiling issues with a 10 foot pole (I don’t think it would be productive to do so here plus I don’t think it’s appropriate.) In answer to your question, there’s a (funny) catch22: Law enforcement officials may not intentionally profile but when they encounter someone who fits the profile who is acting otherwise suspiciously (possible presence of explosives, acting strangely, seemingly evasive during questioning), they may still try to be culturally sensitive and aware to see if something is the matter. For example, the guy may be hungry because he’s fasting so they ask to see if they can better understanding his behavior.
So why the fumbling? Precisely for the reasons you said: profiling is frowned upon and there cannot be an official “diversity” seminar in how to profile on these matters correctly. Even basic training about these cultural distinctions would constitute evidence of profiling, yes?
Similar catch-22’s occur in diversity training: You have to avoid saying things that can offend people based upon the protected categories. This includes a list of words that are otherwise innocuous but in the wrong context, can trigger a full-blown incident. So the only way to avoid offending the people is to keep that list of your words in your head to avoid blurting them out. But keeping them in your head means you think them in that person’s presence. All day long. Even if you disagree with the words, you have to keep them in mind to AVOID saying them. I had to go through a list of a whole bunch of offensive words I never knew existed (I was chuckling the whole next day.) I learned many offensive things in diversity training (both official and unofficial).
Sorry, I don’t feel sympathy. The guy surely knew his skin tone was going to cause an issue as soon as the detectors went off. Not excusing the racial profiling, but it’s reality. You think it’s any different to be Black in NYC or London? Stop and frisk is disproportionately done on Blacks. So where’s your self righteous outrage about that?
A very-well written post, thank you for publicizing these excesses. The least JetBlue can apologize for mistreating Mr Mukerjee for Flying while Brown.
@Paul (post #11), I’m not sure I understand your point. Are you suggesting Matthew K. is a hypocrite for alerting his audience to this incident, while not also discussing the racial aspect of NYC’s stop-and-frisk policy?
Perhaps you missed that that this is a travel blog. 😉