American Turban

Still the TSA after all these years

A mock advertisement was recently placed on a retail website that was actually a satirical statement about the TSA's security procedures. (source: Amazon)

A mock advertisement was recently placed on a retail website that was actually a satirical statement about the TSA’s security procedures. (source: Amazon)

What does one do when an officer of a government agency does not follow their own policy and in the process violates your rights? If we are speaking about the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), we often don’t know.

On the Huffington Post, Simran Jeet Singh shares a recent episode when a TSA officer forcefully patted down Singh’s turban — a religious article of faith for Sikhs:

I’ve made this cross-country journey hundreds of times in my life and have traveled all over the world — but not once have I ever been forced to allow security to pat down my turban.

This experience is not at all uncommon. On a recent trip, a TSA officer imposed himself and patted down my own turban, an act which was a violation of my religious sensitivities, and was inconsistent with the TSA’s own procedures when I presented myself previously, when their officers to gave me the option to pat my turban myself and have them then swab my hands to search for suspicious residue.

Immediately afterwards, much like Simran Jeet Singh did, I submitted a complaint to the TSA using the FlyRights smartphone app. I received a canned response from the TSA which re-iterated their policies but did not address at all my specific complaint nor the inconsistency by their officer related to previous patdowns. I did not feel assured that the TSA would take any corrective action. In essence, my perception is that the TSA wrote my complaint off and I am left to believe that such practices will recur. We see evidence of this in Simran Jeet Singh’s experience.

I have also noted that during recent air travel, after going through advanced imaging scanners and metal detection, the TSA agent I am forced to report to has been confused about what to do with me. That the TSA has officers dealing with the public who are not informed about proper policy and procedure is clearly a liability that has plagued the organization.

A recent report in November 2012 by the Government Accountability Office raised concerns about the TSA’s complaint process, stating that the “TSA’s complaint resolution processes do not fully conform to standards of independence to ensure that these processes are fair, impartial, and credible, but the agency is taking steps to improve independence.”

The following December, several members of Congress wrote a letter to request that the TSA address the issue of racial profiling within its agency:

“In 2009, TSA concluded that they have the capacity to undertake an independent audit but decided that it was not necessary because the new Advanced Imaging Technologies (AIT) machines would resolve profiling concerns. But this did not prove to be true,” it said.

Despite the implementation of the advanced imaging program, we have suggestions that racial profiling is still occurring, and the TSA has not audited their own procedures to ensure that such profiling does not occur. While it often continues to be an object of focus by TSA agents, we have been provided no evidence that a Sikh turban was ever used in a terrorist act. What sets apart the TSA’s focus on the turban is that this article of faith is already regularly and incorrectly associated with terrorism in the United States, and thus the the agency’s treatment of it continues to reinforce a stereotype that plagues Sikh Americans.

The indignities perpetrated by TSA officers against the public at-large (and specifically women, children, seniors, the disabled, and members of religious communities) is well-documented. With consistent protest, there have been some victories in securing our personal rights. For example, only this year the TSA agreed to a Congressional directive to cease using scanners that produce nude images of passengers who are scanned with advanced imaging machines.

However, such progress is slow, and one wonders how or why this agency is continues to commit egregious violations of personal rights. Further, based on my own experience and those of others, one also must question whether the TSA’s difficulty in consistently following its own procedures and being transparent about addressing these failures makes us less safe.

It is time that the TSA undertakes a clear and thorough audit of its procedures and policies.

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