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Arab-looking passengers expect scrutiny now, and try to lessen the
By BRAD FOSS, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Interrogations, body searches and suspicious stares are common these days for air passengers with darker complexions and foreign names.
In response, many air travelers of Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian and even South American backgrounds have changed their behavior just to get through the experience with a minimum of inconvenience and embarrassment.
"I don't open my mouth in the plane," said Lebanese native Khaled Saffuri of Great Falls, Va.
Saffuri, 45, makes sure he shaves closely and puts on a suit every time he has to fly, even on weekends. To avoid the stares of fellow passengers inside airports, he recently joined United Airlines' $450-a-year Red Carpet Club, which gives him access to less-crowded lounges.
He hates driving, but has taken his car to West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan over the past six months just to escape the aggravation he faces when flying.
Nidal Ibrahim, the 35-year-old editor of Arab American Business Magazine, said he tries to get a seat in the back of the plane, far away from the cockpit, lest he make flight attendants or other passengers nervous.
He also makes sure to go to the restroom before boarding to avoid making others fearful by getting out of his seat mid-flight.
"I'm also very careful about what I pack," said Ibrahim, a Californian born in the West Bank. "I debated long and hard recently about whether I was going to take a pen. I'm a writer and I'm debating whether I should take a damn pen."
The airlines deny they have engaged in racial profiling since Sept. 11, when Islamic extremists hijacked planes and struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
Still, discrimination lawsuits are stacking up, filed by fliers outraged at what they considered to be abusive treatment. Plaintiffs include Arab-Americans, a permanent U.S. resident from the Philippines and a U.S. citizen born in Guyana.
Some incidents have received extensive news coverage:
-- A flight bound for New York's La Guardia Airport was escorted by a military plane after a passenger raised suspicions about a group of Indian travelers who were passing notes and changing seats. The group, which included a noted actress, was detained for questioning for five hours. Apparently they were just excited about seeing New York.
-- A pilot refused to fly an armed Arab-American Secret Service agent out of concern that his badge and photo ID were not genuine. The agent, a member of President Bush's security detail, did not get to Texas until the following day.
Less well-known are the steps being taken by many other flyers to avoid making headlines or seeing their travel plans disrupted.
Hassana Mardam Bey, a 29-year-old Syrian who lives in New York, said "you have to be extra polite." With light skin and Mediterranean features, Mardam Bey said it is her passport that triggers the questions and body searches from security workers.
"You always feel guilty for no reason," she said.
Kazandra Bonner, a 29-year-old multimedia producer who lives in New York, said she has been pulled aside by security workers for "random" checks so many times since Sept. 11 that she now asks her boyfriend to board separately, taking her carry-on luggage with him.
"Once the mark is on you, it seems like you can't shake it," said Bonner, whose theories about why she gets selected for extra screening range from her skin color (her mother is from Peru) to the unusual spelling of her first name.
Mardam Bey, a temporary worker for the Open Society Institute, a George Soros foundation, said she now rides Amtrak when traveling to Boston or Washington.
While such measures may be effective in the short term, they can carry an emotional toll over time and lead to depression, feelings of inadequacy and other stress-related disorders, according to David Rollock, an associate professor of psychology at Purdue University. Rollock is studying the emotions of victims of race-related police misconduct.
"If we assume this is going to be a time-limited experience, then it may not be an unworkable strategy," Rollock said. Eventually, though, "this short-term strategy is going to wear thin for folks."
Rollock said the airline industry, which insists its passenger screening process is blind to race, needs to do more to reverse the perception that it is not. He suggested community outreach, advertisements making it clear that passengers of all backgrounds are welcome and cultural sensitivity training for airport screeners.
"Those types of things are under discussion right now," said Greg Warren, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency in charge of airport screening. Warren reiterated the agency's stance that it does not profile passengers based on gender, ethnicity, religion etc.
The TSA says its profiling is based on a computerized system -- which takes into account travel history, how the tickets were paid for, whether the trip was one-way or roundtrip, and other factors that are classified. Other passengers are randomly singled out.
Some lawmakers, including the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., believe profiling passengers by country of origin is a reasonable way of trying to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks.
For the time being, Muslim and Arab-American fliers are making efforts to avoid drawing attention to themselves, said Sameer Abdelghani, owner of Rainbow Travel in Anaheim, Calif.
Some Muslim fliers request no meal rather than asking for food prepared according to Muslim law, Abdelghani said. Others ask if their wives and daughters should remove head scarves when traveling. He advises them not to, saying they have nothing to be ashamed of.
"I'm very proud as an American citizen and a Muslim," he said.