It's not easy coming back home to America when your name is Ahmed.
I want to look forward to returning home from a trip abroad, but thanks to my name or as the TSA officer put it -- my "profile" -- I've come to dread it.
The last four times I've traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival. It's as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, "blessed," each time I land at JFK airport, I can't help but feel somewhat cursed.
On Sunday night, after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time, I was detained for two hours upon arrival. In October, I was held for almost four, returning home after a 14-hour trip to Turkey where I moderated a UN conference on peace in the Middle East. For what it's worth, I breezed through security in Istanbul.
In Davos -- where I interviewed some of the world's wealthiest, most powerful and highest-profile people -- the running joke among our production team, and many of the other participants was how unusually friendly and hospitable the thousands of police officers, special forces, and security guards were. My team passed through security checkpoint after checkpoint at each of the various venues with respect and dignity.
Why then, you might be wondering, am I detained every time I set foot on U.S. soil? As it is always abstractly and bluntly explained to me: My "name" and "my profile" are simply a "match."
Like all Americans (and every human being for that matter), I want to be safe. But I can't help but question the efficacy of our national security policy, including the practice of detaining U.S. citizens because something (never specifically explained) about a name or person's identity is said to match that of someone somewhere in the world who is deemed to pose a threat to America. How close is the match? What aspects of one's "profile" are searched for a match? None of that is ever explained.
The first time it happened, I asked the Department of Homeland Security officer for specifics. But all he told me was "there is somebody out there who was involved in an incident and your profile... is a match." He would end our 10-minute conversation by discouragingly adding, "This is likely to keep happening." And It has.
Just one month later, the second time I was detained, I was returning from a four-day trip to Kuwait to see my family during Thanksgiving. I was especially excited to see my 91-year-old grandmother, whom I hadn't seen since I last visited Kuwait to both bury and celebrate the life of my 93-year-old grandfather (who is also my namesake -- as is often the case in the Arab world, I was named after him).
It is already nerve-wracking enough to head straight to JFK after work, traveling 12 hours to Kuwait, only to travel back 96 hours later and head straight back to work. But seeing her, for me, made the trip worth it. But to the DHS officer, it was "highly suspicious".
This time the whole process took 3 hours.
“Why did you fly to Kuwait and back for just 3 days?” she asked me.
I explained that other people at work had taken time off to spend Thanksgiving with their families – I had to get back for work. I also told her I was a journalist.
"So, then you should know why this is suspicious,” she answered.
She went on to ask a few other questions that a basic Google search would quickly reveal the answers to in the summaries of the first page of results.
At the end of our back-and-forth, I asked her how I might get off this weird DHS list. She said I could write to Homeland Security, they would review it, and send me a redress number. So I did that. Months later, I have still yet to hear back. This third recent time, I went to Lebanon to spend New Years with friends.
As it would turn out, in the eight days I was there, two car bombs exploded, killing nearly a dozen people including the former Ambassador to the U.S.In fact, on the day I boarded my flight back from Beirut, the U.S. had issued a travel advisory warning citizens against travel to Lebanon.
When I got to the security line this time, the so-called threat I posed was communicated as clearly as it ever had. I placed my passport into the new automated immigration machines and it spit out a document with a big X over my face. I was swiftly ushered into another customs line. The officer reluctantly highlighted my boarding pass, seemed empathetic to my story and walked me to the second clearance room where a woman in line in front of me was wearing a beautiful green Shalwar Kameez that dragged on the floor behind her.
At the door, an Egyptian-American woman greeted me, "Al Salaam Aleykum," she said. I reluctantly responded "Wa Aleykum Al Salam," though I was hardly feeling at peace. The room was filled with rows of seats and several DHS officers with colorful folders (red, yellow, green, blue) lined up in front of them with passports and travel documents. The juxtaposition of the colorful folders with the rows of mostly brown people filling the seats was suspect in itself.
"Omar Mubarak... Juan Diaz... Sayed Hussain," the officers called us one by one.
I couldn't help but feel as though JFK itself was a bit racist.
After a 14-hour trip, I wanted to stretch my legs. So I stood up, anxious to find myself back in the room, especially after having written to the DHS. "Take a seat," the officer at the door sternly said to me. I told him I wanted to stretch my legs after the long flight. He told me I wasn't allowed to stand up. You are also not allowed to use your phone or electronic equipment. I was also slightly surprised to find as many children in the room as there were cameras.
"Sir, I'm a U.S. citizen who wants to stand while being detained. Am I not allowed to stand?" I said, pointing to the Asian man and Pakistani woman standing with their toddler strapped to the man's chest. Anyway, there were only two empty seats in the room with a capacity of 60.
"Sit down!" he repeated for the sixth time, and came and confiscated my phone, which I was using to try to text my coworkers who were waiting to share a car home.
I looked around, unsure as to whether I should seek solace or serious concern in the fact that I was certainly not alone. I wondered if being asked to step aside was really making anyone of us safer. According to this piece written by Rifat Malik, whose husband also had his passport withheld for further "security checks," it's not. Like mine, "His name is similar to one on an American terrorist watch list."
As Malik points out, "in the early years post 9/11, immigration officials used to pretend these anti-terrorism checks were random." In fact in 2005, 30,000 airline passengers discovered they were mistakenly placed on federal "Terrorist" watch lists, Jim Kennedy, director of the Transportation Security Administration's redress office revealed. I was frustrated, but did not pity myself, though I found the fact that so many children were in the room with me to be pitiful.
Even if one applies the better-safe-than-sorry mentality, it doesn't justify the fact that Najila Hicks' 8-year-old son Mikey found himself on the list. That, one would imagine would be easy to correct, but as she told the New York Times,"it should not take seven years to correct the problem."
Thirteen years ago, 19 men armed with knives hijacked four airplanes and within a few hours killed almost 3,000 people. Since then, the U.S. has spent more than 7.6 trillion on the military and homeland security. The government claims that the NSA surveillance program and FBI wiretapping has thwarted terrorist attacks and helped foiled plots even as these claims have been repeatedly challenged.
The U.S. has spent trillions expanding its massive national security state. The Department of Homeland Security has morphed into a monster conglomeration of agencies that serves as a its own defense department. Whether drone wars, surveillance programs, kill lists, or prosecuting investigative journalism, our government's approach to counter-terrorism has undermined the long-standing American principle of "innocent until proven guilty." The efficacy of the new doctrine is as neglected as the need for accountability and transparency in order to preserve and grow our democracy. A thorough review of ineffective U.S. counter-terrorism and immigration policies is long overdue.
Anyone can find themselves on "the list." Children, elderly people and even the late Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts found himself on the list in 2004. But unlike Senator Kennedy, I couldn't enlist the help of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to help me get off it.
In the last five years, The Transportation Security Administration spent about $900 million for behavior detection officers to identify high-risk passengers, but, as of today, only 0.59 percent of those flagged were arrested and zero were charged with terrorism, according to the General Accountability Office.
There is, at least for me, some irony in the fact that The Department Of Homeland Security is detaining me from getting home when I land.
Having had the good fortune of growing up moving from city to city (including Cairo, Kuwait, Vienna, and Berkeley) I've always struggled to identify with the concept of home. But that's why I love living in New York. It's easy to feel at home here in the big apple, which is why that big X mark on my face is all the more demoralizing.
If there is anything I learned at the World Economic Forum, it is that there is a crisis in leadership in the world. After interviewing more than 65 global leaders, I was reminded that for better or worse, we live in a globalized world. So whether it comes to tackling youth unemployment, income inequality, or climate change -- we must work together to promote tolerance, and encourage a candid conversation that interrogates both our own polices and practices and those of other governments and corporations. We must hold each other and ourselves to account for this world we all share.
It's time we fix the bureaucracy of the DHS to ensure people who aren't threats (and if I may add are rather passionate advocates of peace and tolerance) are able to return back home without detainment and interrogation.
At the very least, I am somewhat encouraged the TSA has a program to allow me to remove my name from the watch list, but as Mikey's case proves, it is problematic to say the least. After being detained on December 1, the officer told me my name had been taken off the list. But yesterday when I found myself in the same room the officer explained that apparently "some incident happened between December 1 and today that has put you back on it".
Around the world, the threat of terrorism is as real as ever. But through my work and personal experiences and those of my friends, I'm convinced the system is broken. I know all too well, the prejudices that come with growing up Arab or Muslim in America post 9/11 and the polarization that can have on society. But if we let prejudice and racism win, we will have lost to the extremists -- both here and there.
Follow Ahmed Shihab-Eldin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ase