It's Hard Not to Feel Like A Criminal in the Airport
A swarthy, dark-haired gentleman has always inspired mystery in the western psyche, but it’s no longer a curious mystery – it’s a suspicion. Even Arab customs officials can be curious about how someone who could pass so easily for an Arab national (and thus subject to military service) is actually not. But American customs officials are invariably unwelcoming to pretty much anyone, and I suspect more so to people who have entry stamps from a number of Arab countries. Even when visiting the US with the blessing of the US State Department with advance diplomatic knowledge, I can always look forward to a plethora of questions, which can often result in delays of up to several hours.
I remember going to the US after Barack Obama was elected president, wondering how I might fare in this new era. The first customs official I met was remarkably friendly and very quick, telling me all was fine. It was not until after I got my luggage that I realised he had stamped my documents differently than most of the other travellers, which resulted in my being subjected to an additional security screening. As always, no reason was given. I was assured it was "standard". Standard for whom? "Standard" and "random" have such convoluted meanings in today’s world that are only understood when associated with the word "profiling".
Courtesy of the now infamous "underwear bomber", security was going to be significantly increased, the British and US governments announced in January. Body scanners would be introduced, raising very serious concerns around privacy and civil liberties.
Over January and February I knew I would be travelling between two Arab states, from the Arab world to the UK, two flights in the UK, and then from the UK to Malaysia, via a short stay in Cairo. I was a man travelling alone, with lots of stamps from Arab states in my passport, and under the age of 45 – in other words, I fit the prime "suspect profile".
What would I do if I were stopped? I had not really decided one way or the other. But no one wants to question how security is dealt with when they are in the airport after September 11. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be comfortable to do so everywhere else.
Internally, I tolerated that I might indeed be delayed, purely on account of the colour of my skin. At every point where I saw an airport official, I paused and waited to be stopped – whether for a moment or for an hour. Particularly at London Heathrow, which I passed through several times over one week, I wondered if I was being watched. Who would I call if there were a problem? In a peculiar way, I wondered if this is how it felt to be on the run, as a criminal?
I came dangerously close to feeling as though I was culpable of some sort of wrongdoing, even though I had done nothing at all. I had to make a conscious choice not to feel that way. It was difficult when so many pundits and commentators were publicly saying that people like me, even non-Arab nationals, even British citizens, should expect to be profiled and suffer the consequences. Was that the justice and security the British system purports to respect? Or was that just the fear that al Qa’eda wanted to inspire? Either way, I did not feel particularly comfortable – because it meant that in some small way, al Qa’eda had succeeded in changing our way of life.
Some weeks ago, a British Labour politician suggested that communities in the UK (specifically, Muslim communities) should simply accept that there were going to be restrictions and profiling, and urged their acquiescence, as some sort of "patriotic duty". At the time, it struck me that this was a remarkable admission of something very troubling – modern day British patriotism, at least for some, means that we should accept an infringement of a person’s civil liberties on account of their race or religion. That admission was not being aired in inconsequential quarters and it was one I could not have fathomed being aired five years ago.
I thought about all of this as I embarked on my trip. Remarkably, there were no delays. As always, the folks at Heathrow Airport were very polite, and I never felt, not once, that they were taking advantage of their power to delay people.
I only had one conversation with security personnel that I myself initiated. Flying from Heathrow to an Arab capitol I asked an airport official: "So, where are these body scanners? I’ve been wondering about them". He replied, 'They're not here yet. Just as well – they don’t work anyway," meaning, they're not particularly helpful. I couldn’t agree more.
H.A. Hellyer is a fellow at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and Europe Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
This article also appeared on TheNational on February 10, 2010: