Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Are Muslim women exempt from TSA screening? (and other myths)

Muslim woman in a hijab (Steve Evans)

Today I once again don my tinfoil hat to tackle a series of internet rumors about the new TSA screening procedures.   These procedures include body scanners and random pad-downs (what most people would probably being frisked).  I am actually taking an airline flight from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport today.  While riding in from the parking lot, I had the rare opportunity to talk to a TSA officer on an informal basis about the new procedures.  While many of his answers are incorporated into this article, I will respect his anonymity. 

Are Muslim women wearing burkas exempt from screening?  One rumor making the rounds is that Muslim women wearing hijabs (scarves that cover the head and face) or burkas (loose garments that cover the entire body, leaving an opening for the eyes) would be exempt from TSA screening due to religious reasons.  This rumor seems to stem from a press release by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that notes that Muslim scholars say that full body scans are a violation of Islamic law.  The press release gives a list of recommendations that include the suggestion that they ask to pat themselves down, but does not claim that they be exempt from screening.

According to the officer I spoke with, the only instance in which self-pat-downs are allowed is in the case of turbans.  The wearer still must go through screening, including the body scan, but is allowed to pat down the turban himself.  The TSA screener then conducts a chemical test of the wearer’s hands to ensure that no explosives are present.  This exception is due to the religious significance of the turban to Sikhs and is consistent with CAIR’s recommendations.

Note that CAIR does not claim that Muslims are exempt from either body scans or pat-downs.  The press release notes that “if you opt out of the full-image body scanner, you have the right to request that the manual search be conducted in private.”  This is a tacit acceptance of the fact that Muslims do have to abide by the law and undergo body scans, pat-downs, or in some cases both. 

Afghan woman in a burka (Steve Evans)
Further, the TSA website notes that travelers who wear baggy clothing or head coverings could be subjected to additional screening, rather than being exempted.  A claim that President Obama exempted the Muslim women from screening appears to be ungrounded in any sort of reality.

Can the TSA search me if I decide to leave the airport and not fly?   According to my source, it depends on where you are in the line when you decide to leave.  If you are simply standing in the queue, you are free to leave without being searched.  However, if you have placed your personal items on the conveyor for screening, you have committed to being searched.  If you attempt to leave the line after placing your items on the conveyor, the TSA considers you to possibly be dangerous.

Is there a radiation hazard from the body scanners?  Officially, the TSA says that it would take 1,000 scans to approach the maximum allowable radiation dose.  Unofficially, my source confirmed this, saying that it would take several scans to equal the radiation from a normal medical x-ray.  Thinking logically, a medical x-ray must penetrate the body, while a TSA x-ray need only penetrate clothing.  Considering this, even flight crews and frequent flyers should have nothing to worry about.

Additionally, only about half of airport scanners use x-rays.  The remainder use millimeter-wave technology that poses no known health risk.  If you are still concerned about the risk of radiation, however, you have a right to request a pat-down.

Are travelers subject to strip searches?  One viral video that generated a lot of anger and angst showed the TSA screening a shirtless toddler.  In another case, a man stripped down to his briefs after refusing the body scan.  In both cases, the travelers themselves took the initiative to remove their clothing.  The toddler’s shirt was reportedly removed by his father (who remained with him).  The man who stripped to his briefs was arrested on unspecified charges (public nudity?). 

The TSA does not have the right to strip search travelers in public.  They do have to right to subject you to additional screening if they cannot determine that your clothing is free of threatening items.  You have the right to request that the additional screening take place in a private room.  The additional screening will be performed by a TSA officer of the traveler’s gender and does not include being stripped.

Can airlines opt out of TSA screening and hire private security firms?  This is partially true.  Airports, not airlines, are responsible for security screening.  The airport authority does have the right to contract with private security firms for screening rather than using the TSA.  If the airport elects to use private security, travelers are still subject to the same regulations and searches as at TSA-served airports.

A pat-down by a Customs-Border Patrol officer
Is Opt-out Day a good idea?  Some critics of the TSA plan to hold a National Opt-Out Day on November 24, 2010.  The idea is to protest the use of body-imaging screeners by asking all travelers to ask for pat-downs.  Theoretically this would punish the TSA by overwhelming screeners because pat-downs take longer and require more officers than use of the screening machines.

This is not a good idea.  The threat is real.  It has been less than a year since Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb in his underwear.  Prior to that there was the liquid-gel explosive threat of 2006 and Richard Reid’s shoe bomb attack in December 2001.  There are plenty of terrorists who want to kill Americans and if disgruntled passengers choose to cause problems for the TSA, resources will be wasted and the chances of a real terrorist getting through are increased.

Additionally, travelers who try to overwhelm the TSA are also causing problems for their fellow travelers.  By trying to slow down screenings on one of the busiest travel days of the year, they are going to cause innocent travelers to be delayed, miss their flights, and possibly miss Thanksgiving celebrations with their family as well.  Further, if you elect to opt –out of body screening, you will be subjected to a pat-down (groping) by TSA officers yourself.  Most people do not consider this a pleasant experience.  Opt-out Day is a dumb idea.  Don’t do it.

Can’t we just screen Muslims since only Muslims are blowing up airplanes?  No.  Aside from legal and constitutional restrictions on racial profiling, this is not a practical idea since Muslims are a religious group, not a racial one.  First, not all Arabs or Middle Easterners are Muslims; they can be Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, etc. 

Second, Muslims can be average white or black Americans.  There are a growing number of western converts to Islam.  John Walker Lindh is a white American who was captured in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban in November 2001 after converting to Islam.  John Allen Muhammad, the DC Sniper, was a black US Army veteran who converted to Islam before launching his 2002 jihad.  Another white Muslim convert, Washington National Guardsman Ryan Anderson, was convicted of spying for al Qaeda in 2004.  Additionally, Muslims from countries such as Bosnia, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan are also Caucasians.  Further, Arab Muslims have reportedly disguised themselves as Hispanics as well.

Profiling is needed, but it should not be racial profiling.  Instead, as Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation suggests, profiling should be used to screen out travelers who are not a threat.  For example, screening flight crews, young children, military personnel (Nidal Hasan notwithstanding) and the elderly is a waste of TSA resources.  Remaining travelers should be placed into high or normal risk categories.  If a traveler is high-risk, such as travelers from countries such as Yemen or Pakistan, if there is specific intelligence about the traveler, or if traveler is on a TSA watch list, then the traveler should be subjected to rigorous screening.  Medium-risk travelers should be subjected to normal screening and random pat-downs.

Are all the horror stories blown out of proportion?  Probably not.  There are cases where the TSA agents were almost certainly excessive in their actions.  Two examples are the man, whose urostomy bag was ruptured during a pat-down, soaking him in urine, and the flight attendant who was forced to remove her prosthetic breast.  TSA agents should be better trained to deal with situations like these.

Additionally, the TSA announced today that it would change its procedures for searching small children.  In one case, a cell phone video showed a child screaming after a pat-down triggered by her teddy bear.  I am not aware of any cases in which terrorists have attempted to use children or their toys to commit a bombing, but given their lack of respect for human life, particularly the lives of infidels, such a plot is not out of the question.

As you go to the airport, check the TSA website for tips on how to make your screening fast and trouble free.  Respect the TSA officers and your fellow passengers.  Remember that the TSA is on your side.  The sole reason for the agency’s existence is to protect airline flights from terror attacks.  Through a combination of intelligence coups and good luck, they have been successful in the years since the September 11 attacks.  Reserve your anger for the terrorists who make the whole ordeal necessary.

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