"He who sacrifices freedom for security is neither free nor secure."
— Benjamin Franklin
A nation founded on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness isn't a happy place for many South Asians anymore. Their brown skin, facial features, undulating accents and general awkwardness in an alien culture are the new handicaps. Celebrity can't protect you, nor can your fat bank balance. At American airports today, security officers go by computer-generated pointers—your name, country of origin, country of residence, countries visited in the recent past.
The world's richest Indian and Wipro chief Azim Premji found this out recently. He joked about his special treatment at US airports last week after his name kept popping up "randomly". Ironically, Premji was attending a high-level, first-ever bilateral conference on "cyber security". Premji was not the lone sufferer: since the 9/11 attacks last year, such eminent Indians as actor Kamalahaasan, singer Shubha Mudgal and writer Amitav Ghosh have faced the third degree at airports despite invitations and work permits from US authorities and borne it with dignity.
But Indian-born, long-time Canada citizen Rohinton Mistry was less equanimous. He cancelled his US book tour earlier this month as he saw "visions of Guantanamo (Bay) and of concrete slabs" after being repeatedly pulled aside by overzealous airport security personnel. Mistry found that his brown skin and beard were "not a felicitous combination". He took the searches in his stride at first but "then it began to happen at every single stop, at every airport. The random process took on a 100 per cent certitude," said the celebrated author.
Dr Bob Rajkumar, a US army doctor of Indian descent and a US citizen since 1985, also suffered a similar fate. He was whisked away in handcuffs from his first class seat last month by US marshals on a Delta flight in Philadelphia. Then he was detained in a police cell so dirty, he said he wouldn't put his "dog" in it. During his three-hour nightmare, Rajkumar was never asked his name, address or social security number. When he demanded the reason for his detention, the marshals said something to the effect of "we don't like the way you looked at us". His wife, breathless with fear, was left to wander around the airport. Rajkumar now plans to sue the government for illegal detention and emotional distress.
Premji, Mistry and Rajkumar are victims of "racial profiling"—a controversial practice of targeting suspects based on race, national origin, ethnicity or religion. It is not just an issue of who gets stopped but why they are stopped and how they are treated. American civil libertarians have long fought the government because of the unfair targeting of African Americans and Latinos for crimes ranging from drug deals to murders. South Asians and Arab Americans have now joined the dreaded list as the Bush administration hunts for terrorists.
Angela Davis, a professor of law at American University, says racial profiling doesn't work because anyone capable of orchestrating four simultaneous and deadly hijackings can get around it. "Racial profiling invites a dangerous complacency." But police have used the technique for decades and even improved on it. Last week, Boston's Logan Airport became the first to launch "facial and behavioural" profiling. Passengers considered suspicious—muscles twitching, nervousness, furtive looks—will have to take a lie detector test while specially-trained officers look for body language, evasiveness and ambiguity. (The test is common at Israeli airports although US officials promise they will use it more selectively.) Logan Airport has a lot to prove: the two airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center took off from there.
That America has changed fundamentally post-9/11 is a truism but the multiple pincers closing in on ordinary people under US Attorney General John Ashcroft have baffled even the most ardent fans. The Justice and the Transportation Departments have issued a terrifying list of bewildering regulations and reactivated little-used laws to provoke, flush out and snoop on potential terrorists. Here's a sampler:
- Green card holders are now required to report address changes within ten days of moving or risk financial penalties, jail or deportation. The plan, using a long-neglected 50-year-old law, would affect 10 million people older than 14 years living in US legally. Indians on H1-B visas, who move often on short-term contracts, now have to be extra diligent about the paper work.
- Under a new snoop-and-snitch initiative, a million volunteers have been sought to report "suspicious" activity under the Terrorist Information and Prevention System. Postal workers, gas and electricity meter readers who have access to the privacy of people's homes were asked to join.
- FBI can now infiltrate mosques, churches, temples, listen in on Internet chat rooms and read message boards without evidence of criminal activity.
- In March, the Justice Department announced its second dragnet plan to question an additional 3,000 individuals of South Asian and Middle Eastern background after the November 2001 campaign to question 5,000 men. Some California police departments refused to cooperate in the interest of community relations.
- Under a new law airport security and screening officials have to be US citizens. Thousands of trained, non-citizen workers, many of them South Asians, lost their jobs this month.
Jorge Martinez, a spokesman of the Justice Department, angrily dismisses allegations that the government was going beyond "normal procedure." Says he: "The government is not in the business of harassing people. If their status is lawful, they have nothing to worry about. But you should be afraid if you are violating the law." He denies any racial profiling or targeting of Muslims at airports of entry. Under new airport security laws, visitors from five countries designated "state sponsors of terrorism" (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan) who pose "an elevated threat" are subject to additional questioning. But a more sweeping second set of "discretionary criteria" based on intelligence data applies to all visitors.
While authorities strike a difficult balance between weeding out suspected terrorists and honouring the dignity of ordinary people, civil libertarians fear the potential for abuse is high. Alberto Benitez, professor of immigration law at the George Washington University, says the Republicans under President Bush are trying hard to prove "they are doing something". "This administration realises that there is a lot to be gained politically in fanning the legitimate fear of terrorism. Their message is 'If you disagree with us, you are giving material aid and comfort to the terrorists.'"