Patting down Pakistanis

In the frenetic aftermath of the thwarted bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has issued a new set of screening guidelines. In effect from Jan 4, 2010 the new guidelines will be applied to all passengers on flights to the US and will subject those from “countries of interest” to special scrutiny.

Included in the notorious list are not only countries that have been listed as “state sponsors of terrorism” but also others which include Pakistan, Nigeria and Yemen.

According to the new regulations, citizens of these countries travelling to the US will be subject to extra scrutiny because of their national origin and asked to undergo a pat-down search in addition to an inspection of all their personal belongings. In addition, everyone travelling to the US from these countries, regardless of their national origin, will also be subject to the additional security measures.

In sum, all those with a passport from any of the listed countries will be a marked individual and presumed to be a potential terrorist unless a search of their person and belongings can prove otherwise. In practice, citizens of the listed countries are already being singled out for individual interviews and manual baggage searches upon their arrival at a US port but the new regulations will move them from discretionary procedures to mandatory ones.

The stepped-up security measures are unsurprising; travellers to the US have been subject to all manner of indignities for nearly a decade now. However, the formalisation of these rules along with the unapologetic pinpointing of certain nations as inherently suspect is notable for several reasons.

The emergence of these guidelines in the aftermath of a botched attack and with the inclusion of Nigeria on the list of suspicious countries, suggests the superficiality of anti-terror measures employed by the TSA.

Specifically, it emphasises the fact that screening measures meant to thwart potential terrorists are developed in response to particular attacks rather than based on independent intelligence-gathering and an understanding of the modus operandi and potential threats posed by terrorist groups.

Indeed, the shoe bomber created the imperative that shoes be taken off at all US airports, and now the underwear bomber has condemned all those from certain maligned nations to undergo full body scans that will expose every physical contour to a screener seated in an undisclosed back room.

Undoubtedly, the next bombing attempt whether it is via shoes or underwear will mark yet another set of people as potential terrorists.

The institutionalisation of suspicion in the form of the new TSA directives is thus an unequivocal statement of what has been known by the citizens of these unfortunate countries for decades. President Obama may say that he has faith in the Pakistani people (and ostensibly in the Yemeni and Nigerian people), but apparently this is not good enough for the TSA to treat them like everyone else. This chasm between the rhetoric of alliance and the tactic of scrutiny illustrates the vaudeville nature of ties between the US administration and the Pakistani public.

By subjecting any and every Pakistani (even those who may have lived abroad for decades) to heightened scrutiny the US is demonstrating that while it can trust the Pakistani military to fight a war for it, it cannot trust a Pakistani entering the country. In presuming that they may be terrorists, the US is backing the political statement that there is no need to develop profiles based on actual threat. Instead, it prefers to rely on profiling shortcuts that discriminate rather than yield law-enforcement results.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights. Article 2 prevents against “distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs”.

While the value and application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been severely questioned in recent years of war and terrorism, the emergence of these new guidelines suggests a far more visible abandonment of precepts that have been venerated as cornerstones of the universal commitment to human dignity and that could potentially be the antidote to terror and fundamentalism.

Forcing those from the global south to sacrifice their dignity at the altar of US national security throws into stark focus how the dignity and rights of these men and women are easily done away with to preserve an esoteric sense of security in the global north.

Yet it is not dignity alone that has been sacrificed. On the day that President Obama made a statement about the thwarted attack by the Nigerian bomber, Karachi had been hit by a blast that left more than 40 people dead. Days later the Lakki Marwat attack killed many more. None of these were even mentioned.

Amid the usual finger-pointing and sabre-rattling that has become a sadly familiar routine, not a single US politician is willing to own the fact that the ‘security’ supposedly provided to the individual American following 9/ 11 is largely illusory. Like income disparity between the rich and poor nations, the recent episode illustrates the chasm between security expectations of affluent citizens in the global north versus the security breakdowns in the global south that witnesses daily suicide bombings. While the TSA may be focused on the narrow goals of assuring the security of America’s transportation system, labelling entire nationalities as suspect exposes the fiction of the very values for which the war on terror is being fought. In forcing the administration to be reactive and blindly discriminatory in the aftermath of the bombing attempt, Al Qaeda may have scored an even more significant ideological victory than would have been afforded by an attack on a plane.

The writer is an attorney and director at Amnesty International, US.


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