After visiting one of my friends in Toronto a few years ago, I was on the train coming back to the United States. As the train arrived at the border, it stopped for the customs and border protection agents to check the passports. One of the agents approached me and nicely asked for my passport. I took it out and gave it to him. As he examined it, I noticed that his smile quickly disappeared. He looked at me again, seeming inexplicably troubled. He gave me the passport and thanked me. But a few moments later, another agent came into the car and asked me to follow him for "random" double examination.
As we got off the train, I followed him into the customs office by the track, I noticed that he had selected four other people (three minorities, and one Caucasian who spoke with a heavy Eastern European accent). The agents proceeded to make phone calls and showed a stunningly boorish behavior toward the individuals selected for the random check. One of them insulted me because I answered my phone. I could not believe the representatives of the American government would treat a U.S. citizen in such an undignified way, but wondered if their selection of me for this security procedure was truly random or because of where my passport indicated I was born: Tehran, Iran.
On another occasion a few months ago, I was at my gate in the Fort Lauderdale airport before getting on the plane for a trip to Peru. As I was waiting in line, a gentleman wearing a TSA jacket walked up to me and said, "Sir, if you would follow me please, I'm going to give you a quick pat down and put you in front of the line." Of course, I wouldn't have minded if he was patting down everyone else in line, too. But he was not. Keep in mind that I had already gone through all the standard airport security checks, metal detectors, and ticket checks. Still, there was something about me that made this TSA agent hand pick and re-search me.
Over the past week, the media has shown a great degree of interest in the Virginia couple that crashed the Obama Administration's first state dinner party. It was revealed that the Salahis -- the media hungry couple that has also been auditioning for a so called Real Housewives of Washington DC -- were able to enter the party without invitation and get close to so many high level individuals in the White House, including the president's chief of staff and Vice President Biden, and even shake hands with President Obama.
While those in the media seem concerned about the failure of the Secret Service, few seem to genuinely believe that the president's safety was at all jeopardized. So I could not help but wonder how the media, the White House, Senator Lieberman and the public would have reacted to a different breach. One can only speculate, how would these parties have reacted if instead of being a beautiful blonde woman in a fancy dress and personal make-up artist who literally followed her to the gates, the intruder was a man of Middle Eastern descent with beard named Muhammad? Imagine how people would have reacted if such an individual had been able to enter the White House and shake hands with the President without an invitation.
For one thing, Senator Lieberman would be on Fox News, pointing out how he prays five times a day and is connected through six degrees of separation with some Muslim cleric without using a pronoun once just so he could repeat his first name, "Muhammad," as many times as possible. Not to be left behind, the rest of the media begins to rail against the Secret Service and wonder if Mohammad had a malicious intent that he wasn't able to act on because something didn't go his way. They would research a blog, a paper or something he wrote, in which he was mildly critical of the U.S. government. The Secret Service would immediately take him in for questioning, and no amount of answers would be sufficient to fully satisfy the authorities. Even if no evidence of malevolent intent is detected, the Justice Department will surely prosecute him for this trespassing and put him behind bars for at least a few years.
Of course very few people are seriously demanding that the Salahis be prosecuted. Most of the media is treating the story as an unfortunate incident, but no one is on alert. Commentators seem irritated that the couple would pull such a stunt to get media attention the same way they were during the "balloon boy" incident. But no one -- including the Secret Service -- seems scared or interested in telling the story as part of the global struggle against terrorism. This is because the intruders just "didn't seem threatening," as a commentator said. I will leave it for you to decide what those are code words for.
This is all, of course, besides the point that it surely would have been impossible for a Muslim man named Muhammad to be able to get in the White House if his name was not on the list.
Many of us were frustrated by the Patriot Act during the Bush administration and the way in which it led to profiling and discrimination against minorities. But although President Bush is gone, his legacy continues to live on. Elements within the American security structure -- from national airports and border checkpoints to the White House -- continue to make decisions about threat levels, at least in part, based on the ethnicity and appearance of the individuals of interest. Minorities have to take their shoes off twice before getting on the plane, but the Virginia couple can show up and walk right into the White House as the announcer reads their name through the speakers and shake hands with the President of the United States without anyone stopping them.
I don't generally agree with the Republican strategist, Ed Rollins, but I love something he said on Sunday about the White House intruders: "These people want a reality TV show? Give them one. It's called 'Dealing With the Federal Prosecution System of the District of Columbia."
UPDATE (Thursday, 12.3.2009, 1:20pm): The New York Times is reporting that the individuals within the Secret Service who were responsible for letting the Salahis into the White House have been placed on leave.