Security and Suspicion
by Hanson R. Hosein
“Salaam ma'leikum Mr. Hosein.”
So spoke the security attendant as I entered the secured area of the Vancouver airport for a flight to Seattle. My first reaction to the familiar Islamic greeting? It's a trick. It was my first trip to the United States since before September 11 and I was uncertain how I would be welcomed now that the world had changed. My loyalties were being tested with a wink.
I looked up at the young man in uniform. He had the same dark skin as me. He was smiling. It wasn't a trick.
“Wa'ale qu'um salaam,” I replied. Peace be onto you as well. Not to have answered would have been rude. And cowardly.
Under the cirumstances, we must be wary of young Arab men.
I didn't write that. Peggy Noonan from the Wall Street Journal did. It was her recent cautionary tale about suspecting the usual suspects in support of homeland defense.
It would have been odd had I written it. I have some Arab heritage. My last name has an Islamic tinge. And I was often the subject of wariness by Israeli security agents during my three and a half tenure in the Jewish state. I enjoyed my respite from being second-guessed as a potential terrorist after I concluded my Tel Aviv assignment.
We must be wary of young Arab men. I understand her, and other Americans' concern. There's trauma there. After the suicide bombers re-emerged in the Middle East last year, I too found it hard not to look twice at any olive-skinned man with heavy facial hair who looked out of place in heavily westernized Tel Aviv. It's a survival thing. It's also a fear thing.
There are so many fine lines - balancing the survival instinct with fear, common sense with paranoia, unflinching scrutiny with respect. And the most crucial: tightening up travel and immigration regulations while ensuring basic freedoms in public places.
I despised being treated like a second-class citizen by Israeli airport security when I lived there. But under the circumstances, they asked the right questions, and determined the level of threat I posed immediately. And my background rarely affected my relationship with the average Israeli. They were smart enough to be selective in their suspicions once they got past my last name. (A friend of mine who headed up El Al's security in New York once suggested that I change my last name before moving to Israel. I politely ignored his suggestion.)
Do I want to see intense Israeli-style security in North America? I'm not sure. I remember stealing a glance at the El Al passenger list before a security interview at the airport. There was an “S” beside my name on the computer print-out, Singling me out for Selective Scrutiny because my Surname was Suspicious. I steeled myself for the requisite half-hour inquisition. Where are you from? Where did you visit? Who did you visit? What are their names? Why? I also remember my rental car once being searched for explosives at the entrance to Ben Gurion Airport. It was humiliating.
That said, there are security checkpoints that stop every car entering the perimeter of Jordan's airport in Amman. And all your luggage gets x-rayed before you can even step foot into the main terminal in Cairo - whether you're a young Arab man or not. These governments also fear terrorists inspired by extreme Islamic fundamentalism. They just look for them in a less discriminating way.
Despite September 11th, North American airport security still hasn't gotten it. Do we really think that passengers packing their own bags, eating with plastic knives on board flights, and switching on their laptops at the x-ray machine is going to stop a determined terrorist?
The INS officer who interrogated me was having a bad day. That's what his colleague muttered aloud just before my interview. As usual, I had chosen the wrong agent.
I expected the worst. I was travelling to Seattle to help my American wife move to Canada - which is what I told him. I felt myself regressing into my Tel Aviv-era shell, half suspecting myself of being capable of evil deeds.
But all the INS agent was concerned with was whether I had a return ticket and would not be stealing someone's job south of the border. He asked me if I had ever worked in the States. I said yes. But I didn't tell him that it had been in New York. Or that my office had been on the third floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza - as a producer for Tom Brokaw's Nightly News. The same place where a letter laced with anthrax was delivered years after I had left, endangering my friends and former colleagues. And he never asked. The Israelis would have. All he cared about was whether I had a permanent resident's card or not. When I didn't understand what he was asking me, I told him so firmly, and a staring contest ensued. After all, he was having a bad day. And that was it.
Before my flight back, I somehow dropped my boarding pass after going through security at Sea-Tac airport. When I brought it to the agent's attention, she smiled and told me that I just needed to go to the gate and get another one. I did. And no one asked for my identification. They should have.
I think we're in the fight of our lives, and I think we're going to need their patience. And I think those who have not yet developed patience are going to have to grow up and get some.
That's the Wall Street Journal again, saying it's better to err on the side of suspicion. That those who look out-of-place must “grow up” and be patient with the extra attention they'll be getting: be it on an airplane or on a city sidewalk. That young Arab-looking men shooting video of Manhattan landmarks should be interrogated as to their intentions.
I'm a television news journalist, and I often shoot video of major sites. And I don't want to be constantly interrogated about my right to do my job -- without breaking the law -- in a public space. Perhaps we should all “grow up” and learn when Sensible Suspicion and Solid Scrutiny makes for effective Security. And not just Silly Stereotypes. Or else we'll be sent back into the twilight zone of Cold War-style paranoia and second-class citizens.