Sustainable Security, for People of All Races

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In three previous installments -- first, second, and third -- readers have discussed the implications of a recent case in which a Boston-area musician, Vance Gilbert, caused an airline crew to panic and abort the departure of a plane. Gilbert is black. How much difference did that make?

This is newly on my mind because, when starting on the first leg of a long overseas trip today, I had the most unpleasant encounter in years with TSA officialdom, at Dulles Airport. (I am now at LAX, waiting for the connecting flight.TSA Officer Z*** of Dulles, I will remember you!) This encounter was a reminder that regardless of race, getting crosswise of security-officialdom can lead to a lot of trouble. It was also a reminder that asking "Why?" or "What is the reason for that?" to a uniformed official of the wrong temperament can be the first step down a path that is difficult to retrace. (This is probably the place to say: earlier this week I had an encounter with the DC police, after a neighborhood incident, that impressed me in a strong and positive way with the judgment, tact, and training of the squad that responded. Officer L. Myers, I will remember and be grateful to you.)

More about that later. For now, commentary from some readers on the interactions between long-standing problems of race and more recent security-state thinking. These messages are long but if you read them I think you'll see why I'm quoting them in full. The first is from a reader in Washington DC:

>>Just read the piece on Mr. Gilbert, who doesn't seem at all confused about what happened to him.
 
But not everyone has lived in his skin and walked around in it a while (we should heed Atticus a little more).  Someone once said the true burden of being African American is not knowing when something like this occurs whether it was race or something else.  Unfortunately, all too often there is the possibility.
 
I've had great difficulty catching cabs in D.C. since I was 16 years old.  Some thirty years later, it is hardly news to me.  I don't complain about it, it is my life.  But recently, I was walking with two white coworkers in downtown after a meeting.  We wanted to hail a taxi back to our workplace and I tapped on a parked taxi's window.  The man looked at me and waved me off.  A couple of seconds later, he saw me standing with my coworkers and tried to wave us into the cab.  They were angry and said screw it, and we took the Metro.  I found myself apologizing, assuring them it that it was no big deal because it happened all the time.
 
Back when Bob Levy wrote Bob Levy's Washington column, I remember him talking often about people and their taxi difficulties.  Let's just say they were not my difficulties.  As a young man, I thought, if they only knew.
 
Lately, the issue has come to something insignificant but persistent: restaurant seating.  All too often I'm seated at the worst table, not the booth that's available at a restaurant that doesn't have reservations.  No matter the motivation of the staff, I have to ask for better tables.  If I chalked every instance up to race, I think it would be too taxing and, god, is it frustrating.
 
Lastely, I've begun thinking about what people see when they see me.  Mr. Gilbert appears to have been an unlikely pilot to his hosts on that flight.
 
My treatment in certain stores in and around D.C. makes me wonder what they see that says dismiss him, fear him, show him disdain.  All of these things have happened upon my presence in places of business in or close to Washington.
 
Not every encounter (or even most), mind you, but enough to where it is no longer surprising.
 
It's now been decades of an awful experiment and it is tiresome.<<

Next, from a reader in Vermont, who got in trouble watching birds:

>>First, count me 100 percent on the side of the folks who think Vance Gilbert was given this treatment because he's a black man.  Obviously, no proof of what the airline people were thinking or feeling, but...

When was the last time a middle-aged white guy was hauled off a plane on suspicion of being a terrorist?...

Security theater and racial profiling-- in the year or so after 9/11, birdwatching circles were full of stories about harassment by overzealous officials, and most of us experienced at least one or two of these incidents.  Birdwatchers are prone to creeping around out-of-the-way places at dawn and dusk and to abruptly pulling their cars over to the side of the road, leaping out and setting up scary looking big spotting scopes on tripods, or worse, laying the scope on the roof of the car to look through. Cops on high alert, understandably perhaps, found these habits deeply unnerving.

The areas around airports were of course particularly sensitive, but airports are prime birding spots during the winter since the wide flat spaces attract far northern raptors looking for familiar terrain to spend the winter.

The second winter after 9/11, one of the rarest and most glamorous and sought-after birds, a gyrfalcon, took up residence all winter on a three-story office building in South Boston (amazingly, right next to the Black Falcon ferry terminal).  Right across the street from this building and the bird's perch was a parking garage, a fabulous place to watch the bird from unusually close range.  The open top deck of the garage therefore attracted crowds of eager bird-watchers-- which the people in the office building and the cops they called mistook for potential terrorists.

Think about it, 30 or so puffy white middle-aged birdwatchers, necks slung with binoculars and cameras, as potential terrorists bent on bringing down a big jet across the bay at Logan Airport.

The cops chased us off the garage.  We went back.  They chased us off again.  The Coast Guard pulled up in their boat and chased us off with loudspeakers.  After a week or so of this, the cops, finally convinced we really were middle-aged suburban birdwatchers, then made up out of whole cloth a new rule, that you had to have a permit from the city to go birdwatching anywhere within five miles of Logan Airport.

We continued to resist, mostly politely, and eventually the cops and the people in the office building got used to us and left us alone.

Thus the dilemma of racial profiling.  Idiotic to cast such a suspicious eye on birdwatchers (sadly, probably 99 percent middle-aged, middle-class white people), but the next step after figuring out how dumb that is is what happened to Gilbert Vance.<<

From a reader in Canada:

>>After travelling through different airports in different countries, I must say that security screens in the US are the worst, but an incident in Canada demonstrated to me how their authority can be abused.  On this occasion, during a plane change in Calgary, I saw that the security services everywhere hold an inordinate amount of power that is can be abused for any of the very personal reasons a screener may hold.

It was very early morning, before the coffee shops opened.  Because there were a few hours between plane change I decided to leave the secure area and get some fresh air. As I was leaving the airport a nearby coffee shop was in the process of opening, so I rushed over, and waited by the counter, to get that much needed morning coffee.

As I waited for the server to serve me, a woman wearing a security uniform, came up to the counter, stood behind me, calling out to the server, "Elsie, can I have a black coffee".  The server "Elsie" gave her the coffee and I started to give my order.  Then, six more security people came up behind me and each called out their order.  Elsie served all of them leaving me standing there.  I was annoyed but let it go thinking that they were in a rush to get to their duty stations.

After Elsie served them, I gave her my order.  Elsie picked up the cup and pot to pour my coffee, when a lone straggler wearing a security uniform appeared and called out her order to Elsie.

Elsie put down my cup and started to serve this lone person when I blurted out, "Do you mind giving me my coffee please".  By this time I started to have visions of spending the entire time waiting in a line and never getting my coffee.  Elsie served me before she served this security person.

I got my coffee, went outside and then returned to go through security.

When I went through security, every single person in that coffee line up was working the area.  I was searched, scanned, patted down, had my carry-on torn apart, by 3 different security personnel, all in sequence.  I swear I saw the last one smirk at someone behind me.

Could I prove I was singled out?  No.  Could I prove they were abusing their power? No.  Do I believe that security personnel were abusing their power?  Certainly Yes. Do I believe Gilbert?  Absolutely Yes!

And BTW.  I'm a white 66 year old, grey haired grandmother.<<

And from a reader who I think is a Westerner now living in Japan:

>>I was scheduled on a flight to Japan. Sitting directly behind me were a father and son, both Americans, and obviously (to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear) Indian. They were doctors on their way to represent a New York-area hospital at a conference in Tokyo. I spoke to them as we were getting our seats, and they were jovial, friendly and polite. They were also well-dressed. They were neither quiet nor loud.

The plane had three rows (the center strip had 5 or more seats). Sitting on the opposite side were a couple, white, in their 40s, wearing jeans and t-shirts, looking much like tourists. I can't imagine why they were going to Japan or how they would fare there, but sure enough, they complained about our Indian doctors to the point where the flight had to be stopped. Airline employees asked the doctors (as discreetly as possible) to get off the plane.

I wanted to say something, but I didn't. I really wish I had. After the doctors were taken off the plane, they asked everyone to get off the plane. We waited two and half hours while the plane was checked by security officials. The white couple sat in the waiting area telling anyone who would listen that they were the ones who spotted the potential terrorists. They went back and forth between looked gravely concerned, and laughing. They were obviously very proud of their behavior, as were several people encouraging them.

I'm sure they still recount their hero story for anyone who will listen.

When we finally get back on the plane, the doctors were not on the flight. The airline must have put them on a different plane. I hope they didn't miss their conference.<<

And:

>>I was an executive travel agent for a Fortune 200 company on 9/11. I flew then and shortly after. I have not flown since. The reason? The tsa, not any fear of flying. I simply refuse to submit to the indignities, the invasion of privacy, and the complete surrender of personal liberties based on a bureaucrats supposition of what might, but has not in ten years, happen. I entirely agree that the blind over-reaction to this one event has subtly but substantially changed our culture.<<

There are more, but that's enough for now. (And I'll be offline for a couple of days.) All this is fodder for considering how, as the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks draws near, the United States can shift to a sustainable, decent, long-term strategy for protecting itself, without in the process sacrificing its values or warping its nature so badly that its gain in "security" is Pyrrhic.

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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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