There’s that famous joke that the brilliant Arab-American stand-up comedian Ahmed Ahmed likes to throw at the crowd. In an acerbic, but simultaneously good humoured swipe at what air travel can mean for people of his faith, he says, mockingly, “All you White people have it easy. You guys get to the airport, like an hour or two hours before your flight. It takes me a month and a half.”
And then the knife digs deeper in. “They asked me at the gate if I packed my suitcase myself. I said- Yes. So, they arrested me.”
The self-deprecating witticisms would be uproariously funny if they weren’t almost true in a world once again polarised by the debate around racial profiling. Ahmed himself embraced comedy after a quick sample of Hollywood-style profiling.
The only roles on offer were — Oil Sheikh, Terrorist, Grocer — and soon Ahmed evolved into a superstar humourist instead. But as he travelled the world he would soon discover that with a name like his, he couldn’t make it to Duty Free without a pitstop at what he likes to call the airport’s “Brown Room”. “There’s normally about a dozen or so people of a Brownish colour, looking around and saying — you look like a terrorist, no you look like a terrorist,” he quips.
But enough of the jokes. What does a terrorist supposedly look like? Fair-skinned, light-eyed and almost Caucasian like David Headley? Or Black, clean-shaven and with a footballer’s body like Umer Farouq Abdulmutallab? These days the stereotypical image of the terrorist as an uneducated jihadist with the skull-cap and the unkempt beard keeps getting shown up as an unintelligent caricature.
And yet, as America transits from the Shoe Bomber (Briton Richard Reid; strapped explosives to the base of his boots) to the Underwear Bomber (Nigerian Abdulmutallab; carried a liquid bomb in his underclothes) liberal rantings against the profiling of passengers are now being labelled flights of fancy. Panic-stricken after the Christmas attempt to blow up an airliner, the Obama administration has listed 14 countries for enhanced screening at airports. These include allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as countries like Yemen and Nigeria.
If the Shoe Bomber triggered the mandatory surrender of footwear at X-ray scanners, the Nigerian bomber has ensured that if you are travelling from any of these countries, you will have to go through body scanners first. It’s not so much racial profiling- as much as national profiling — the Americans are arguing.
Despite an intuitive recoil from the notion that an entire faith or nation should be branded because of deviants in its midst, I’m beginning to wonder whether the old politically correct formulations hold either. Of course, prejudicial typecasting is terrible and liberal resistance continues to ensure some accountability and fairness from the system. The Nigerians, for example, have every right to debate why the United Kingdom is not under the scanner considering Abdulmutallab was radicalised there, as were several other terrorists of the al-Qaeda. If a homegrown, desi terrorist found his way to the international stage (it could happen; remember Glasgow?) and India were branded as a country to watch out for, we would all be enraged.
That said, those who dismiss new security measures by arguing that if terrorism changes the way we live, we let the bad guys win — are talking a load of nonsense. Look at us — as we stare warily at that abandoned bag in the restaurant; as we meekly surrender our laptop, shampoo and shoes at security check; as we start at the sound of firecrackers and sometimes mistake them for gunshots; as we wade through the crowds at a railway station and always think of how easy it would be to set off a bomb- who are we kidding? Terrorism has already changed the way we live and the best we can do is to find effective ways to minimise its impact on our well-being. There’s no denying the fact that some personal liberties will have to be sacrificed at the altar of security. This means hammering out a new paradigm of what constitutes fair-play for troubled times, without allowing the State to turn Spy on its citizens.
As India grapples with the same dilemma — how to be safe, without being paranoid — our debates should centre more around effectiveness and less on philosophical hand-wringing. Take body scanners, for instance. In the US, the debate is now shifting from the ethical question of an immigration officer being able to stare into your private parts to whether the machines can pick up the kind of explosive the Nigerian bomber had stitched into his crotch.
Critics of the scanners say they are visible ways of appeasing public fears, but offer no guarantees. Some experts say you can walk through a scanner with an explosive worn inside a condom. Other countries are pushing for technology that allows computers instead of men to conduct the full-body scan. Either way the debate gives you a chilling glimpse into how creative security needs to be.
In India too, we don’t debate efficacy enough. In all the arguments over whether the controversial new visa rules will keep away tourists we haven’t focused enough on whether they can really help stop another Headley from making nine undetected trips in and out of the country.
Of course, better intelligence may be the most potent antidote as all the unheeded warnings about the Nigerian Bomber prove. Likewise with creating barriers for the Headley-style infiltrators. It’s dangerous to mistake the wood for the trees. But, equally, we will have to concede that a new culture of security rituals is taking shape and we cannot remain
philistines in a changing world.
Ahmed Ahmed likes to joke that it’s easier for people of his faith to arrive for a ‘pat-down’ in a g-string. But, now even strip-searches aren’t enough. As all the old rules get re-written, we must be ready to find a new balance between civil liberties as we once knew them and the ever-dangerous mind of the modern terrorist.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal