Travelers Prep For TSA Frisks
ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, in the program today, it's Thanksgiving week and we want to offer you some ways to get through the holidays with your mind and your wallet intact. That's a little later.
But first, millions of Americans will be taking to the skies to visit family this week. And as you may know, unless you've been living under a rock, the Transportation Security Administration, those security folks at the airport, have new rules and a new means of checking those passengers picked by random or for some other reason for a full body scan or a full body pat-down.
Some people of color say they regularly face intrusive searches when they travel and they believe that a certain degree of profiling is part of airport security measures. So, what effect are the new TSA methods having on travelers, women and men, young and old, but mostly black, white, brown, yellow or red?
We've asked two people to help us better understand what to expect and how to deal with the new security measures. Zahra Billoo is executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in the San Francisco Bay Area. And Dr. Carl Bell is president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council. He's also a clinical professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois. Welcome to the show.
Dr. CARL BELL (President and CEO, Community Mental Health Council): Thank you.
Ms. ZAHRA BILLOO (Executive Director, Council of American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area): Thank you for having us.
KEYES: Dr. Bell, let me start with you. Many people of color, especially those of Middle Eastern background say they've been feeling violated for a long time, and, frankly, in many other circumstances. Why do you think there's so much outrage now? Is it because other ethnicities are having to deal with that?
Dr. BELL: Well, you know, people have always felt that sting of a microaggression, where you feel like you're being stereotyped, profiled or singled out. And I think, you know, we've been under this for about 10 years now, and people are just getting tired of it and it feels like it's more intrusive and more scary. Every time you go to an airport, they're at an orange alert. So it's just getting a bit burdensome.
KEYES: What exactly do you mean by microaggression?
Dr. BELL: Well, microaggression is where people say you're a person of color in line and a Caucasian person cuts in front of you without even acknowledging your existence. Or if you're an African-American and you're driving a nice Lexus, a white policeman pulls you over and doesn't ask for your driver's license or registration, but says, where did you get this car? Like, if you're a person of color, you can't own a nice automobile.
And those are little micro-insults that infringe on time, energy, space and mobility that are very subtle, but very demeaning and denigrating.
KEYES: Zahra, you've been doing a lot of research and speaking with people, what have you been hearing? How are they feeling about it?
Ms. BILLOO: People are upset. I mean they've, as you said, it's sort of been building up. And with these last new measures, it's really, you know, we can't take it anymore. And we're actually hearing from a lot of people who, you know, have been very traumatized from their experience at airports and others who are considering not flying to simply avoid the trauma.
KEYES: There's a Washington Post/ABC News poll that shows two-thirds of Americans support the new full body security, the screening machines. But half of them said the enhanced pat-down searches go too far. I want to play a clip from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano from just yesterday.
Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): Point of fact, it's only a small percentage of passengers who get patted down. Nonetheless, I think we all understand the concerns Americans have about that. It's something new. Most Americans are not used to a real law enforcement pat-down like that.
KEYES: Actually, I want to ask you both, but I want to start with Zahra. Do you think people would feel any better thinking that this doesn't affect most people?
Ms. BILLOO: No, absolutely not. I think that it should affect most people. The idea that we're sacrificing our Fourth Amendment right to this (unintelligible) unconstitutional search and seizure is troubling. And when I look at it from a civil rights perspective, I worry about the direction that our nation is going in, sort of under the guise of a security theater.
KEYES: Do these scans violate Islamic law?
Ms. BILLOO: The scans definitely do. But it's not just an Islamic law issue, it's a general modesty issue. There are people of numerous faiths that have kind of, you know, these body scanners essentially, you know, produce naked images and that they go against our faith. And so, I want to be very clear about this, it's not specifically a Muslim issue, it's a modesty issue and a privacy issue.
KEYES: Dr. Bell, do you feel like this is just straight up profiling?
Dr. BELL: Well, yeah, you know, I think the difficulty for a person of color is trying to tell when you're being profiled and when it's just a generic security issue. It's funny that black people are very used to getting stopped, searched, patted down. I'm a professor of psychiatry and I'm forever being stopped and questioned simply because I'm African-American.
So that it's a very difficult issue because what it does is it gets you to question and wonder what's going on, which imbalances you and disturbs your equilibrium and your ability to get through life in a peaceful, calm manner. Not to mention the privacy issues and just the intrusiveness and sometimes rudeness of people that are doing the searches. It's just unpleasant.
KEYES: Is there ever a good reason to profile? I mean, this is a security issue. There have been threats against us. Shouldn't we, Dr. Bell, deal with whatever we have to deal with to be safe?
Dr. BELL: Well, you know, it's a double-edged sword. If you want to catch the hate crime people and the terrorists, you've got to intrude in people's privacy. The other side of the sword is that if people are not doing anything, they don't want you in their business because you have no business being in their business. So it's a messy, delicate situation.
KEYES: Last night during an Intelligence Squared debate in New York, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that racial or religious profiling doesn't help when trying to identify radicals. Let's take a listen.
Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Former Secretary, Homeland Security): The sad reality is that there is no single group, ethnic or a group signified by its appearance that you can identify by looking at them in a way that will tell you that they are an extremist or not an extremist.
KEYES: Zahra, what do you think about that?
Ms. BILLOO: I absolutely agree. I mean, that's the concern is what does a terrorist look like? And, you know, going back and looking as far as back as 9/11 and then the subsequent attempt at attacks, everyone has been a different ethnicity, a different gender even.
And so how do we know what to look for? And that's the problem with racial and religious profiling. And that's one of the reasons it doesn't work. And that's actually why I called it security theater is that it creates this illusion of we're safe, we're secure. You know, we're protecting our borders. And in reality, we're not. And that's the problem.
But, further, it alienates communities. And so, when you have people that maybe look a certain way or fit a certain description going through security, knowing that the TSA is targeting them. It makes them even less willing to cooperate. And I think that that entire concern is what makes it, you know, all the less safer.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and I'm speaking with Dr. Carl Bell of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago. And Zahra Billoo of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in San Francisco about the effects of the enhanced security measures at airports.
Dr. Bell, in a 1994 article, you wrote about the problem of knowing when, where and how to resist depression, versus when and how to accommodate it. How would that apply in this situation?
Dr. BELL: Well, it's the same situation. You are a person of color, a good person, not a terrorist, not meaning any ill will and all of a sudden you're being profiled, searched, treated differently. And so the question is, do I fight this and miss my airplane? Do I complain and cause trouble and maybe get even into more trouble for myself? Or do I just let it slide? And that's the psychological questioning which keeps people off balance and uncomfortable.
But, you know, the other issue which is striking to me is that this is exactly what terrorism is supposed to do. It's supposed to create a great worry in a large number of people by a very, very, very small number of people. And so they're succeeding.
KEYES: Zahra, when people call your organization to inquire about being treated poorly, what do you suggest they do?
Ms. BILLOO: Well, so, a couple things. One, we always suggest that people comply with all posted rules and always arrive early because that thought process of, do I let this fly or do I assert my rights at the border requires a comfortable place in line. So, first and foremost, if you're worried about missing your flight and then trying to assert your rights, you're going to upset everyone, right?
But also, it's important to sort of know the rules, know the procedure and know your rights before going in and then make that decision. If you're going to assert your rights, do so confidently. And if you feel as though your rights are violated or if you're mistreated, it's really important to file complaints with the TSA. They have supervisors on site who you can always ask to speak with.
But the reason that it's important to file a complaint is because, you know, the TSA is conducting its own field studies in which they're showing, for example, that a lot of Americans don't have a problem with this. And they're doing that based on the number of complaints they're receiving.
And so, if people who are upset, if people, you know, don't like being patted down invasively, don't like the idea of being forced to go into this body scanner, are going on the record saying we object, then we build that data that says, you know, Americans are not okay with giving up their Fourth Amendment rights. Be it because they fit a racial or religious profile or even as a larger community.
KEYES: And we should stress that this is everyone or not - well, everyone, not just people of color that have been complaining about this. Zahra, is the only choice not to travel?
Ms. BILLOO: No. I don't think so at all. I mean I think that it's, you know, know which airports treat customers in a certain way and then pick your airports accordingly. And, you know, I'll give you an example. I flew a round trip through California last week and had no problems at either airports. Both airports I got there with enough time, I asserted my rights. And, you know, the TSA officers that were on duty were willing to comply and were, you know, accommodating and friendly.
KEYES: Dr. Bell, why do you think the media hasn't been so frantic about previous stories of other instances of invasive searching or profiling?
Dr. BELL: Well, you know, everybody's concerned about security. Everybody's concerned about terrorism. So Americans are trying to be a bit more forgiving. Personally, when I go through airports and I travel a lot, I find it extremely stressful, distasteful and just - because, you know, somebody's going to say the wrong thing. I'm going to say the wrong thing and we're going to have a real serious problem, which I don't need.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KEYES: Oh, no. OK.
Dr. BELL: Oh, yeah.
KEYES: We've got to end it there. We're out of time. The entire body scanners are currently in about 70 of the 450 airports in the U.S. Dr. Carl Bell is president and CEO of Community Mental Health Council. He joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. And Zahra Billoo is executive director of CAIR in California's San Francisco Bay Area. Thank you both for your time and for your thoughts.
Dr. BELL: Thank you.
Ms. BILLOO: Thank you for having us.
KEYES: Remember, at TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. And now we'd like to hear from you. Tell us your story. Have you found yourself subject to questionable stop and frisk procedures by TSA airport staff? Did you feel your personal space had been violated? Or do you think the search measures, however intimate they may be, are a small price to pay for keeping the country safe?
To tell us more, you can call the TELL ME MORE comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522. Remember to leave your name. You can also log onto the website. Go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE and blog it out.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.