Airport racial profiling in the United States
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Airport racial profiling in the United States, as the term has been referred to in recent public debates, refers to government activity directed at a suspect or group of suspects because of their race or ethnicity. Under Fourth Amendment analysis, objective factors measure whether law enforcement action is constitutional, and under the Fourteenth Amendment challenges to the practice are assessed under the customary strict scrutiny test for racial classifications.
Since September 11, 2001, there have been reports on increases in racial profiling at airports, particularly targeting people who appear to be Muslim or of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. It has been a routine practice by law enforcement officials to stop individuals who are profiled because of their race and religious and ethnic appearance or who may appear to be “suspicious."
In the weeks following September 11, 2001, federal, state and local law enforcement officials investigated those responsible for the September 11 attacks during which nearly 3,000 people died. They assessed the United States's vulnerability to future acts of terrorism. Investigations showed the suspects of the crime to be of Middle Eastern origin.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, US officials responded to the fears of air travelers by reinforcing security. Despite more thorough investigation of baggage and increased security staffing, there were so many vast open spaces, exits and entrances at airport hubs that prevention of incidents was problematic.
Los Angeles International Airport was recently found to be the most vulnerable to infiltration in the US when it comes to smuggling weapons. Knives, guns, and explosives carried by federal undercover inspectors were missed by LA International airport screeners at checkpoints 41% of the time in an airport security test. The test, which checked security at America's 32 biggest airports, was carried out in June by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which assumed responsibility for airport security.
A 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences asserted that, due to terrorists being vastly outnumbered by innocents, racial profiling is no more effective than random profiling. It has also been claimed that any form of profiling is less secure than random profiling, because a terrorist cell can simply have a number of members go through airport security, until one is reliably not profiled, then use that individual to perform an attack. None of the 19 successful hijackers in the September 11 attacks was reported or even remembered by checkpoint supervisors.
King Downing, the national coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union's Campaign Against Airport Racial Profiling, says he was the victim of profiling by police at Logan International Airport in Boston, MA. He was going to the federal court to challenge a screening technique used around the country that looks at suspicious behavior patterns to identify potential terrorists.
Mr. Downing alleges he was stopped and questioned by state police after arriving on a flight to attend a meeting on racial profiling. Downing has sued the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport, and the Massachusetts State Police, citing they violated his constitutional rights. Downing, who is black and wears a short beard, believes he was targeted because of his race. In his lawsuit, Downing alleges the behavioral screening system used at Logan International Airport encourages racial profiling. His lawsuit also seeks a ruling to declare airport racial profiling as unconstitutional.
In 2002, after the September 11 attack on the US, Logan International Airport began a program called "Behavior Assessment Screening System" which allows police to question passengers whose behavior appears to be "suspicious". Logan was the first airport in the country to use the system.
The Transportation Security Act (TSA) has rolled out a similar system at more than 40 of the nation's largest airports.
Does the current situation facing America, the ongoing threat of terrorism, justify the inclusion of race, gender, and age in profiling procedures at airports and other ports of entry?
In an article published by The Atlantic they summarize "the mathematical probability that a randomly chosen Arab passenger might attempt a mass murder suicide hijacking is considerably higher than the probability that a randomly chosen white, black, Hispanic, or Asian passenger might do the same. In constitutional law, while racial profiling may be presumably unconstitutional, that presumption is overcome in the case of airline passengers, because the government has a compelling interest in preventing mass-murder-suicide hijackings and because close scrutiny of Arab-looking people is narrowly tailored to protect that interest."
"America faces a "clear and present danger" of hijackers taking control of airlines and either killing passengers of using these aircraft as flying bombs. All nineteen terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks belonged to the "Al-Qaeda terrorist network headed by Osama Bin Laden. These hijackers were exclusively adult males of Middle Eastern ethnicity."
The Obama administration's decision to heighten airport security for passengers while traveling to the US from 14 nations triggered a backlash of complaints from Muslim and privacy groups who say President Obama's response to terror threats amounted to little more than racial profiling.
Defenders of the policy say it is a carefully targeted way of zeroing in on those travelers who most likely pose a threat and hurt feelings should not matter after the US averted a midair bombing on an airliner heading to Detroit on Christmas Day.
The TSA is dealing with these opposing arguments and continues to examine and adjust its screening policies in the best way to balance security and privacy.
Asa Hutchinson, former Homeland Security undersecretary, stated "it is important to draw a line between profiling based on race and profiling based on national origin." "If you're talking about profiling based upon geographic origin or where they're flying from, absolutely," he said. "If you're talking about simply because they're part of a particular racial origin, absolutely not..You have to be smart about who you are inspecting."
- Santa Clara University, Racial Profiling in an Age of Terrorism, by Peter Siggins
- Testimony from Amnesty International USA's hearing on racial profiling through airports
- BBC News "Attack shows limits to airport security", July 5, 2002
- Press, William (23 December 2008). "Strong profiling is not mathematically optimal for discovering rare malfeasors". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.0813202106. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
- Chakrabarti, Samidh; Aaron Strauss (16 May 2002). "Carnival Booth: An Algorithm for Defeating the Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening System". Archived from the original on 12 May 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
- Ahlers, Mike M.; Jeanne Meserve (15 April 2011). "TSA security looks at people who complain about ... TSA security". CNN. Archived from the original on 13 May 2011. Retrieved 13 May 2011.
- Slate Magazine - Discrimination we're afraid to be against, by Michael Kinsley
- MSNBC Travel News, ACLU official alleges racial profiling at airport, by Michael Dwer/AP
- B.Y.U. Journal of Public Law, Volume XVII
- Fox News, Airport Security Measures Draw Accusations of 'Profiling' www.foxnews.com
- USA Today by Susan Page - POLL: Most Support Ethnic profiling in air security