TSA vs. religious modesty

I flew to Denver and Las Vegas last week. And I had the girls with me on two legs of the trip.

Going through security on one of those legs, I was told that I had to remove the baby from her Ergo baby carrier. They later clarified that I could have walked through security while holding her in her carrier but I would have been subjected to one of those pat downs we’ve been hearing so much about.

On an earlier flight, that’s exactly what happened. I joked that in some cultures I would be married to my screener by now. But it wasn’t funny. It was incredibly intimate and it actually made me uncomfortable. I felt intimidated by the fact that the screeners have so much authority over your freedom to move about the country. I even thought about how I should respond as a Christian. (I will admit to liking a friend’s suggestion that people moan and make embarrassing noises while receiving their pat down.) That made me wonder why there haven’t been any news stories about whether these new screens violate any religious values. After all, the new policies basically say that if you’re uncomfortable with the government taking naked images of you, you will be caressed or groped by strangers.

In related news, three national Sikh advocacy and civil rights groups are questioning a Transportation Security Administration policy of always searching turbans at airports, even after use of those naked-body imaging scanners some people walk through. On a related note, I saw three pilots refuse to walk through these radiation machines, explaining that they couldn’t possibly walk through them every day without having adverse health effects.

OK, on to the actual news story, which ran in The New York Times:

Officials from the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund went public on Friday about their meeting several weeks ago with representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and the T.S.A.

“All of us jointly feel there are definitely some elements of racial profiling here,” said Jasjit Singh, associate director of the legal defense fund, a civil rights group in Washington.

Hansdeep Singh, a senior staff lawyer for United Sikhs, based in New York, said the meeting in Washington was arranged to hear about how new “advanced imaging technology” scanners would affect Sikhs, who had hoped the devices would eliminate the need for extra screening that they say they are subjected to at airports.

“We went in there with high hopes,” Mr. Singh said.

But the Sikhs said they were told that the turbans will be treated “as a per se anomaly,” Mr. Singh said. That will give security officers the discretion they already have — to conduct additional screening of the turbans, which they usually do already, according to the Sikhs.

The story focuses mostly on the technical details, such as whether these scanners can see through the many layers of the turban, or the racial profiling. The story quotes one of the activists noting that Sikh Americans are responsible for precisely no incidents of terrorism in this country. (Incidentally — here’s a nice Associated Press story about the first Sikh to enlist in the Army in 30 years. And here’s a Washington Post “On Faith” essay about Sikhs being confused with Muslims.)

But check out how the story ends:

Sikhs and T.S.A. officials previously worked out a protocol for removing turbans in private.

“In our faith, it’s the equivalent to being forced to be naked, effectively,” Mr. Singh said.

I really would have appreciated this quote being higher up, considering how mandated removal of the turban is the whole point of the story, and explained in much more detail.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Dave

    I don’t think the racial profiling complaint holds water. I’m not a Sikh but if I tried to get on an airplane wearing a turban I’d be subject to search, too.

    Pilots already get repeated exposure to radiation on the job. They spend much of their working day above 30,000 feet, where cosmic rays are more intense.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Very interesting. I could write so much related to Sikhs in the British Army and President Obama’s recently meetings with Indian PM Manmohan Singh (note the last name – he is Sikh), but this quote really jumped out at me from the NY Times article:

    “While you’re spending that much time on Sikh Americans, who have absolutely no incidents of terrorism in the country, other people are getting through,” Jasjit Singh said.

    True…but North America has seen Sikh terrorism on airplanes. Sikh terrorists destroyed Air India Flight 182 (Wikipedia) in Canada in 1985. I don’t think that a 25-year-old incident committed by a small group of militants should be used as an excuse to harass Sikhs, but, as usual, the full context is complex.

  • Ben

    Pat downs here in the Sikh homeland of India are both intimate and so frequent that you stop thinking about it after awhile. Mileage probably varies for women. I’d love to do a quick story about America catching up to a lot of other parts of the world in terms of the invasive pat-down, but I don’t know the next time I’ll be back in the States to sample the experience.

  • Jeffrey

    “I even thought about how I should respond as a Christian”

    What specifically about being LCMS would trigger a “Christian” response about being screened at an airport? Are there modesty rules regarding clothes or contact with other people that would create a religious conflict with an airport pat-down?

  • Jerry

    racial profiling – since when does following a religion constitute a separate race? Maybe I missed it when Christianity was declared to be a race? Or perhaps you should have remarked on that misuse of the word rather than repeating it.

    I felt intimidated by the fact that the screeners have so much authority over your freedom to move about the country.

    (sarcasm on) But what can be more important than safety? We need to surrender as many freedoms as necessary and torture people if necessary to preserve safety (sarcasm off). Although screening existed before 911, President Bush really started that policy and President Obama is continuing it. And if he dared to relax it, the right wing would be howling that he’s a traitor. Or, more accurately, howling louder and frothing at the mouth even more.

    We’ve sadly come a very long way from the time when courage and the willingness to lay down our lives for freedom has been replaced by its very opposite. We seem more than willing to surrender any freedom if it appears that would make us a little more secure. So we have full body searches, no fly lists and other manifestations of security over liberty. Frankin is turning in his grave because he understood, as he wrote, They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety..

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Jerry said,

    racial profiling – since when does following a religion constitute a separate race?

    1) the common confusion in the US between Arabic ethnicity and Muslim religion,
    2) the fact that Sikhism is closely tied to the Punjab region of India (with almost all Sikhs being of Punjabi descent), and
    3) incidents of Americans assuming that Indians of various religions are Arab Muslims,
    I don’t think “racial profiling” is all that strange of a complaint in this situation. Race/ethnicity and religion are tightly intertwined here.

  • Julia

    Seems that a real terrorist pretending to be a Sikh could easily use the turban to conceal a weapon.

    That’s the issue here, not whether Sikhs really are terrorists.

    A traditional Catholic nun’s head gear would also be a dandy place to hide weapons. And therefore require a special search under that head gear.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Micheal Hickerson

    Julia – yes, absolutely, the core issue is not whether Sikhs are really terrorists. I didn’t mean to imply that in my first comment above. The lack of reference to Air India Flight 182 just struck me as a rather glaring omission, just as the MSM stories about President Obama’s trip to India and decision not to visit the Golden Temple never mentioned Operation Blue Star, the Indian government’s botched 1984 attack on the Golden Temple, which led directly to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the bombing of Air India Flight 182, and which adds so much import to the fact India’s current PM is Sikh. Whew! Sorry for that insanely long sentence! But did anyone see any long feature articles comparing President Obama and PM Singh – intellectuals from ethnic/religious minorities rising quickly to become the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies? I think this is pretty interesting stuff, and I’m not sure why the MSM devotes so much time and space to China’s and Japan’s leadership and so little to India’s.

  • Jot

    I am a Sikh and let me clarify what bothers me about this. First thing I want to say is that I am happy that Sikhs are screened heavily. Why you ask? Because that ensures that no one dressed as Sikh will be able to get past security to do something bad. You should feel sitting next to a sikh on plane knowing that he was screened many more times you were and if TSA is even half as good as they say it is, he won’t have even have been able to sneak his lunch past them.

    Now what bothers me is and it is also my personal experience, that TSA tends to find ways to insult me and hurt my feelings during screenings. Please screen me the same way you would screen anyone with “layered” clothing and do not treat me as a suspect because my layers of clothings are on my head. I am happy to go thru body scanner and if you think you did not get a good look, come do another private screening. But don’t make it madatory just because I am wearing a turban.

    The last guy had stuff in his pants. Why aren,t we checking everyones pants? Some Seniors travel with diapers on. Is TSA checking them? Women travel with sanitary pads too.

    Please just make some damn good scanner and let me just walk thru it than having been pulled to side and treated like a suspect.

  • Hector

    While it may be technically true that ‘Sikhs have committed no acts of terrorism in this country’, it ignores a rather glaring historical context. The Sikh rebellion was the most dangerous and threatening insurgency that India has had to face since its independence, and featured numerous acts of terrorism by Sikh nationalists (as well as the assassination of a sitting Indian Prime Minister). And, of course, Sikh nationalists did blow up a civilian Indian airliner over Canada back in the 1980s.

    It’s true that as far as I know, Sikhs have not been responsible for any major acts of terrorism in the last 20 years. And, of course, searching people’s turbans (whether they be Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim) strikes me as rather ridiculous. I just wanted to point out some historical context, here.

  • John M

    Hector said exactly what I was thinking. It’s not every day that members of a religious group kills a head of state for explicitly religious reasons. Or did those reasons live in that murky area between religion and politics that seems to have so many occupants, including Islamist terrorists? But really, has Indira Gandhi been dead that long?


  • Jon in the Nati

    Or did those reasons live in that murky area between religion and politics that seems to have so many occupants

    I would suggest that this is the case. It is easy to conflate the Punjabi independence movement (and the violence attendant therewith) with Sikhism simply because the majority of Punjabis are Sikhs.

    I would also suggest that it doesn’t matter. Wearing particular pieces of religious clothing should not exempt one from any searches (though I wonder why the so-called ‘full body scanners’ would not suffice). Any search, of course, must be carried out with the utmost dignity afforded the individual.

  • Hector

    RE: It is easy to conflate the Punjabi independence movement (and the violence attendant therewith) with Sikhism simply because the majority of Punjabis are Sikhs.

    Let’s see. The Khalistan movement explicitly said ‘Hindus have India, Muslims have Pakistan, Sikhs don’t have a state’. They were led by the Sikh cleric Bhindranwale. They set up their base of operations in the holiest Sikh temple in the world. They called themselves by a name laden with religious implications (“Khalistan” shares the same root as “Khalsa”, “the Pure”). They repeatedly claimed that resisting Hindu ‘oppression’ was a holy duty incumbent on all Sikhs. I’d say that the Khalistani movement was most definitely a religious one.

    Obviously not all Sikhs, nor the majority of Sikhs, were implicated in the rebellion, but I do think it’s fair to say that the Khalistan movement was explicitly a Sikh movement, and had little support from Hindu or Muslim Punjabis.

  • Jot

    While you guys argue about sikhs, do you think you might want consider a view point of a sikh about it?
    Like I put in post above. Search me please, but keep my feelings in context too. I dont mind getting my turban screened or searched. As long as you dont have touch it or I have to remove it.

    So search the turban, but do it in a dignified way. And if you knew how it was tied, you would realise that any thing that is bigger than sugar pack if stuffed into it, will clearly show something is wrong.

    As for Khalistan movement. It was a Independence movement. Sikhs want a place to call their own. There is no nation in world we can call Sikh nation, while every other major religion has got one that can raise their issues in UN if any.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    “Racial Profiling” is the wrong term here. Being Sikh is a religion, not a race.

    The catch here is that this policy effects all turban-weares, the vast majority of whom world-wide are not Sikhs. It is unique for Sikhs not because others do not wear turbans, but because others do not wear turbans all the time.

  • Kjetg