When I was an undergraduate, religion-based exemptions from various kinds of rules was a hot topic in political philosophy and a lot of the examples revolved around religiously-mandated headgear. Thus I was psyched to see Shadi Hamid post this letter from the Sikh Coalition:

Subject: TSA Changes Rules for Headdress Searches at U.S. Airports

Dear Friends,
As some of you may be aware, we learned late last week that the Transportation Security Administration has changed its airport screening procedures as of August 4, 2007. The sudden change in policy includes, as we understand it, mandatory secondary screening for all travelers wearing any form of headgear - including religious headdress. In addition, secondary screenings of religious headdress are now permitted even if a passenger has already been cleared by a metal detector.

Millions of Sikh, Muslim, South Asian, and Jewish passengers worldwide will be affected by the new process. Still, the TSA not only sprung this on our communities without warning, but now refuses to inform the public of what the new policy entails, on the grounds of security concerns. It took Sikh Coalition staff members almost 36 hours simply to get a confirmation that the policy had indeed been changed, let alone details of the new procedure.



Sikhs, one should note, tend to generate the best examples. My take is that this is not the sort of rule that generates a strong philosophical case for an exemption. Insofar as this sort of procedure is genuinely necessary to ensure public safety, then the rule needs to apply. Certainly, any anti-terrorism procedure that can be evaded by portraying oneself as devoutly religious isn't going to be worth very much. That said, one's overwhelming suspicion is that these rules are not, in fact, necessary.

People tend to forget this, but pre-9/11, American airplanes were almost never hijacked. Since 9/11, we've re-enforced cockpit doors, which would have been sufficient to foil the 9/11 plot. We've also gotten more careful about handing out silverware that can be used as a weapon, which would have been sufficient to foil the 9/11 plot, and about letting people take knives on planes more generally. What's more, passengers now know that they should resist hijacking attempts. The three successful 9/11 hijackings succeeded because up until that day passengers were told not to attempt to resist hijackers. The one time passengers did resist, their resistance was successful.

At this point, you've got to figure that even without all this crap about taking your shoes off and not carrying liquids on the plane, that airplanes have become relatively unattractive targets for terrorists. You could blow up a train or a bus, open fire on a crowded subway station, try to hijack a truck carrying deadly chemicals, or do any number of additional things. Endlessly piling on more and more security measures to air travel is pointless, especially when you consider how much safer it is to travel by plane than by car in terms of accidents.

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