Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Eighty-year-old nanas in wheelchairs tired of getting frisked at the airport

Proponents of racial profiling argue that when such-and-such racial/ethnic group is more likely to be involved in some crime like drug trafficking or terrorism, it makes sense to for the the police, the Feds, or the TSA to target members of those groups in higher numbers. 

A favorite icon of the pro-profiling crowd is the proverbial eighty-year-old nana in a wheelchair, who is being taken aside and patted down by the authorities while mean-looking hombres from Colombia or Egypt who smell of gunpowder and coke move unimpeded to their destination. It's an oft-repeated meme designed to point out the silliness of the idea that anybody could be a terrorist or a drug trafficker. 

The elderly lady trying to get to her grandkid's birthday was a highly effective symbol, I thought. Little did I know that these women actually were suffering from an inordinately high number of "extensive searches," a euphemism for treatment by airport security that is only about two shades better than how prisoners of war stateless enemy combatants are rendered at Guantanamo Bay. And I'm not talking a handful — it's hundreds every day.

Well, if you've ever had a curmudgeonly elderly neighbor who would just as soon stab your volleyball that went into her yard with a knitting needle rather than give it back, then you won't be surprised to learn that the old ladies are mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore.

That's right. The 80-year-old wheelchair-bound nana so heavily scrutinized at the airport has had enough. Indeed, wheelchair-bound octogenarian grandmothers have become so beleaguered that they have formed a nationwide lobbying organization so that the TSA will stop harassing them: Committee to Restore Ordinary Nana Existence (CRONE).

At left is Mabel Perkins of Palm Beach, Florida, the founder of CRONE. She has grown tired of being held up by "dumb-ass TSA workers" who think she has condoms full of cocaine shoved up her butt. "I've missed four flights to see my kids," she says. "And that's four flights too many." When she read that other senior citizens were also being held up due to them being targeted for extensive security checks, she knew she needed to spearhead an organization aimed at bringing back racial profiling "to get those PC nincompoops off our backs."

But, she makes clear to her Black neighbor and close friend at the Sea Coast Senior Living Center, she's not including elderly Black women in her list of who the heat should be turned back onto. "Just the young men," she explains, "and women who look skanky." She would also include Hispanics, and Whites with long hair, but probably not Asians (unless there's a war with North Korea, then all bets are off).  

One of CRONE's first experiences in the national spotlight came last summer, when they provided legal assistance to eighty-three-year-old Iris Knudsen of Anoka, Minnesota (below). Mrs Knudsen was given a one-year suspended sentence for disorderly conduct after she refused to let TSA workers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport examine her girdle for C-4.

Though the case resulted in a conviction and a requirement that Knudsen register as a sex offender, CRONE considers this a victory: Federal prosecutors had pushed for life imprisonment for the Democrat-registered voting rights advocate. 

Perkins is very serious about her mission. She has notebook after notebook detailing thousands of episodes where seniors lost their dignity and sometimes their purse. 

On page twelve of the notebook she shows me is a photo of ninety-year-old Rosa Chung of Daly City, California. Mrs Chung has reportedly been strip-searched thirteen times in the past three years. 

In the margins are notes from an interview with Mrs Chung's relatives, who brought the case to Perkins's attention. "It's very disturbing," says granddaughter Linda Chung. "We think she's beginning to like the attention."

Perkins got me in touch with one Olive Baumann of Englewood, Colorado, who says she's frequently taken aside and frisked thoroughly before she's able to get on an aircraft. When asked if her anti-war paraphernalia may be part of the reason, she replied: "Well, duh! That's why I have them."

Okay, okay. Time to come clean. The above was all a little joke. Actually, I'm quite happy that racial profiling is being set aside and everyone gets scrutinized as much as they do. Clean-cut Timothy McVeigh and his all-White co-conspirators, for example, wouldn't have triggered any of the racial profiling checks (but Jordanian-American Ibrahim Ahmad was tracked down to Amman because it was initially assumed that a Middle Easterner — especially one leaving Oklahoma City that day and heading for Jordan — must be behind the blast).

And then there's folks like Orange County resident Adam Gadahn or John Walker Lindh, American supporters of al Qaeda who would blend in very nicely if they shaved off their beards. The same is true of many light-skinned Muslims of Lebanese or European, or even far North African descent. Some of them have blond hair and blue eyes even!

Yep, al Qa'ida in fact had reportedly planned to use such "European-looking" hirabi to do terrorist attacks.

So it's not just Arabs (Iranians, by the way, are not Arabs) or people we might think "look Arab." A terrorist can look like any one of us. Yes, even an Islamist terrorist can look like any one of us. See, by making sure that everyone has a somewhat equal chance at being carefully scrutinized, they can't use our own prejudices against us.

What I'm saying is that whining about apocryphal 80-year-old nanas in wheelchairs being frisked is wrongheaded (though any contact should be conducted professionally and with dignity) because our security at airports needs to be across the board, not just against those we fear the most. Terror organizations are looking for weak points, and using racial profiling would be a foolish exercise in narrowing our security focus.

[above: Scrutinizing even retired grannies as part of the War on Drugs™ is necessary to catch drug mules like this woman, if she is still in this line of work in fifty years. Which she might be. I mean, despite her gorgeous looks and her Oscar nomination for Best Actress, they haven't exactly been knocking down Catalina Sandino Moreno's door. Just sayin' is all.]

So to summarize, what I'm saying is that relying primarily on racial profiling would be idiocy for a number of reasons: 
  1. First, al Qaeda is already in a position to get around such profiling by using European-looking operatives for their taks. People who don't look any more "Muslim" or "Arab" than Ben Affleck or Johnny Depp. Al Qaeda has already reportedly been discovered years ago to be working on this with great seriousness.  
  2. Second, racial profiling of "Muslim-looking people" (whatever that means) ignores that fact that there are other terrorist threats. In the UK, for example, there was until very, very recently the threat of Irish Catholic nationalists blowing things up in London. And in the US, until 9/11, far and away the largest terror attack ever to occur was by a bunch of clean-cut White guys born and bred in America. 
  3. Third, treating a group of people with hostility because of what they look like is a very good way to engender hostility from some of them, especially the ones who didn't feel that way in the first place. This is true of almost any group, Muslim or otherwise.
A similar argument could be made for "Latin American" drug dealers. I am by no means saying that we should ignore the fact that Islamist terrorists (or Latin American drug dealers) remain such a massive threat to American security. But they are not the only threat, and we can't always tell who they are just by looking (and they know that).

* We in the West have co-opted the term jihad and jihadist when the very use of those words may be causing our own goals to become murky even among those who aren't supporters of armed struggle with non-Muslims. Some prefer the terms hirabah and hirabi in lieu of jihad and jihadist.

Here's an interesting
bit from NPR on the subject:
Professor Douglas Streusand says that's why U.S. officials should stop using the term altogether. Streusand is an Arabic and Farsi speaker with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He teaches Islamic history at the Marine Corps Staff College in Quantico, Va. In a paper written for and circulated among top military brass in the Pentagon, Streusand argues that describing Islamist militants and insurgents in Iraq as "jihadists" is hurting U.S. policy.

Why? Because according to Streusand, "for a Muslim, jihad is a good thing. It literally means striving in the path of God." By describing insurgents or terrorists as "jihadists," he argues, we imply we are fighting meritorious Muslims. To make the point clearer, he says it would be as if al-Qaida called its enemies "freedom."

His suggestion? Use Islamic legal language. The term he suggests is "hirabah" —literally, an unjust form of warfare.
Yeah, calling bin Laden and his minions jihadists seems like the wrong tact if we just end up inadvertently praising them as "strivers in the path of God." The best parallel with Christianity I could think of was someone trying to bash those among the Christian faithful for their support of the War on Terror by calling them "Christian soldiers." Well, that simply would not have the negative ring that was intended, would it?

Calling them
hirabi (committers of hirabah) would be much more fitting to Muslim audiences as it rolled off the tongue of President Obama or UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: they're a bunch of unjust fighters, pirates, and spreaders of disorder, a serious punishment in the Qur'an.

If nothing else, I would like to see
hirabah/hirabi replace jihad/jihadist in our rhetoric about these murderers and would-be murderers. It may end up making little difference to the people already in these groups, but to people on the sidelines, it might underscore the bad-faith acts of these killers and bringers of mayhem, bringing a clearer perspective to why it is that their actions are wrong even though they are of the same faith.

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