What's Under That Sari? (TSA vs. Indian Ambassador Dept)

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Ten days ago, the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg reported on an embarrassing TSA episode in Mississippi. India's ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar, was subjected to "enhanced" pat-down procedures at the airport in Jackson, apparently because security officials were suspicious of what might be under her sari. In principle, foreign ambassadors with proper credentials are (like various US government officials) exempted from some or all screening. In this case, that didn't work. And two days after that, India's ambassador to the United Nations, Hardip Puri, a Sikh, went through a "turban pat-down" in Austin Houston. [News accounts saying that it happened in Houston were apparently inaccurate; see here. Thanks to reader DP, of Houston.]

(Amb. Meera Shankar in a happier moment, while presenting her credentials to another American official. FWIW, people meeting the President usually go through metal detectors but are not frisked.)

meera_shankar_rep_india_600_1.jpg

Not surprisingly, these episodes have caused a huge fuss in India. In much of the world, ambassadors move around as mini sovereignties; people who live in New York or Washington know the headache of trying to get them to obey traffic or parking laws. But another (former) Indian ambassador, TP Sreenivasan, wrote an interesting essay in an Indian publication saying, in essence, that Indians should calm down and make allowances for the excesses of today's security mentality in America. Eg:

>>The first thing to remember is that the security culture in the US is vastly different from ours. It is not wrong to characterise it as paranoid. But that is the reason why no terrorist attack has taken place in the country since 9/11.... They take no chances at all, not even with ambassadors and Nobel Peace Prize winners. When Mohamed El Baradei arrived at the airport in Boston weeks after he won the peace prize on the invitation of the secretary of state, he too was accosted by a "pat-down" expert.<<

Worth reading as a counterpoint to the explanations of John Pistole, head of the TSA, that the agency is trying to move to a less "cookie-cutter," more "risk-based" determination of who really needs an enhanced pat-down; and also as another entry in that evergreen topic area, "see ourselves as others see us."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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