“Excuse me sir, could you please step this way?” asked the airline representative to the middle-aged South Asian man as he displayed his boarding pass.
“Although we are in Heathrow, the United States government requires airlines to conduct extra security checks on passengers flying into the United States,” he said. “Incidentally, your name is on the randomized list that we have received.”
Such incidents occur every day in many airports and the mentioned checks include a full-body pat down and complete check of all carry-on baggage, which necessitates the removal of most of the contents of one’s bags. While this may seem innocuous in nature, I will proceed to argue why I think that it is a violation of many people’s liberties.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution proscribes the search and seizure by any sort of police power without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
There is no exception to the rule that allows for the level of searches that occur at airports today, save for an exception relating to the nature of international borders, which apparently allows officials to search travelers without probable cause.
The law might state that, but is it not true that any legislation that is at odds with the Constitution must eventually be rendered moot? Griswold vs. Connecticut, in 1965 established a right to privacy that individuals possess, in addition to the safeguards offered by the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately, current practices and laws don’t seem to reflect the Constitution and prominent case law.
In my experience while traveling internationally, I notice that, more often than not, fellow travelers of Middle-Eastern or South Asian descent are requested to subject themselves to irritating and intrusive pat downs.
In fact, I don’t recall seeing many, if any, travelers of Caucasian descent subjected to a similar practice.
Although my observations are statistically insignificant, they are all relevant, given the finding that such practices were rampant in Boston’s Logan Airport as of August 2012.
It’s astounding, and one wonders if officials are operating with an unconscious bias or if the American government is generating these so-called random lists from samples that mostly contain Middle-Eastern or South Asian names.
One explanation, stated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), might be that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees are pressed to increase the number of people whom they screen; leading to what I think is amplification in any unconscious bias that may exist.
But step away from all that tedium for just one moment, I implore you. One surely must realize that it is our prerogative to differ, to think otherwise. The scourge of terrorism necessitates heightened security measures.
For example, I don’t mind the mildly annoying aspect of having to remove my shoes and belt. What I do mind is being subjected to and watching others are subjected to extra unwarranted scrutiny merely because of ethnicity or some other similar character. It’s reprehensible, debatably ineffective and seems to be akin to fear mongering.
It is reminiscent of the famous Supreme Court Case, Hirabayashi vs. United States, in 1942. The plaintiff challenged then President Theodore Roosevelt’s curfew and relocation of swathes of people of Japanese descent. The Court found in favor of the president and ignored the racial discrimination that was at play.
Moreover, in the opinions the Justices hinted that the discrimination was justified by the wartime environment. Chief Justice Harlan Stone went as far as to say that, “in time of war residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.”
All this reeks of a typical “greater good” scenario, where a group of a small size relative to the rest of the population decides what constitutes the greater good and whose well-being is to be negatively affected in order to preserve that notion of the “greater good.”
Pushing aside all ethical quandaries that may arise as a result of these highly suspect actions, one must really wonder whether these situations really involve an element of probable cause.
Yes, recent cases have been deferential to the federal government, seemingly allowing for the practices that I mentioned earlier. But this is the same federal government that has been gradually skewing the balance of power over time. Slowly but surely they have amassed such power that the executive, along with its auxiliary branches, is a sight to behold; legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Patriot Act has paved the way for untrammeled and intractable executive power.
Over the years, they have allowed wiretaps and indefinite detentions while sidestepping the courts.
In addition, there is an ongoing erosion of any right to due process, with the advent of drones, a “kill list” and what have you.
What began as a tirade against suspect actions by airport officials can go a long way and eventually morph into an argument against the currently massive executive branch of the federal government, which resembles a modern day Leviathan.
The last 12 years have witnessed an almost incomprehensible assimilation of unrivaled power that belies precedent, including the Constitution. The founders of the U.S. would be appalled.
Nikhil Rao is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]