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Narinder Singh Headshot

Celebrating the Fourth of July with Airport Profiling

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I knew it was going to happen. I'd already written this piece in my head by the time I got to the airport. Instead of spending the morning thinking about the barbecue I was going to, the fireworks display that has become a family tradition, or how thankful I was that my father immigrated to the only country i've ever called home -- I thought about how I was going to get profiled at Newark airport.

It's nothing new, but it's also something you never quite get used to. A public display telling you no matter what you feel or the actions you take, some will prefer to irrationally judge you. But today my words are not to convey how profiling is wrong or widespread (according to the data in the Sikh Coalition Fly Rights App Newark airport is the worst in the country). It's to show how when we place prejudice over practicality we leave ourselves more vulnerable to physical attack and attack what we celebrate on Independence Day.

As I entered the airport today I wore a turban, a required article of the Sikh faith. I also wore the tired look of a traveler who has traveled millions of miles over the last two decades of work. When you fly that much, you look for every opportunity to shave a few minutes or headache from your travel. For me that meant enrolling in the Global Entry program -- a brilliant program where you pay to voluntarily submit to additional screening and an in-person interview. In exchange you receive an expedited path through the airport. When TSA Pre is present, you've been "pre-checked," keep your shoes on, laptops in the case, pass successfully through the metal detector and breeze through security.

Many of the gates at Newark don't have TSA Pre, but they have a half-way measure called expedited screening. In this case you have to remove your laptop, but you still keep your shoes on and (theoretically) breeze through the metal detector. Except of course, if you are wearing a turban. Then even after you go through the metal detector they pull you aside for secondary screening to test your hands for explosive residue after you pat down your own turban. Now i know some of you are thinking, "hey, if we have to profile a few people like you who look like those people to keep everyone safe, it's worth it." But even if you believe in profiling, you're doing it wrong!

First of all, they tested my turban, but I walked through without even a second glance towards my shoes. Shoes which have been one of the most common ways for terrorists to attempt to attack us. Richard Reid, a white englishman known as the shoe bomber, being the most well-known. Second, the scenario is predictable. In every instance I have ever experienced that resembled this one (over 30) they tested my turban, not my shoes. This predictability plays into the hands of those who would wish to do us harm.

At a higher level, think of all the things the airport knows about us before making the decision to pay more attention to me over others. My flight details, payment methods, phone number, flight history and patterns, Global Entry enrollment and many more factors are immediately available. Expanding just a bit gets them to all my social information. Biasing instead towards these very small physical factors systematically harms our security and faith in the system. It becomes security theater. Is it any surprise that Newark Airport, the airport that had the most instances of profiling also just had a TSA officer breeze through its security with a fake bomb?

The wonder that is America has a long celebrated freedom and protection of individual liberties. It's also a land of opportunity and possibility. American ingenuity has again and again delivered innovation that has bettered lives across the world. We can do better than primitive and poorly applied stereotypes as a means of securing ourselves. We have real and ever-evolving challenges to take on in security and we need that ingenuity to drive how we approach problems. It will make us safer, and as Abraham Lincoln noted at his first inaugural address, lead us towards the better angels of our nature.

One of the things I cherish most about America is our never-ending quest to be better. Others hide their nation's shortcomings in order to present a one-sided image to the world. Here we acknowledge and debate our challenges openly because we know only in the light can we see them clearly and take action. It's that America that I choose to celebrate on this Independence Day.