Like all practicing Sikhs, Gurpreet Singh Tuteja wears his turban as a sacred symbol of his faith and its values of discipline and austerity. Every morning, the suburban business consultant winds a long bolt of black or saffron cloth tightly around his uncut hair, where it remains until he returns home. He has worn the turban on hundreds of business trips, without incident.
But several weeks ago, when he was boarding a flight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to return to Washington, Tuteja, 24, said he felt shocked and humiliated when a Transportation Safety Administration screener pulled him aside to "pat down" his turban as part of a new policy, even though he had passed through the metal detector without incident.
"For us, the turban is a sign of respect for God. It is not like a cowboy hat. It was very uncomfortable having someone touch it," Tuteja said Friday. "I am all for the security of the United States. I am an American, too. But it should not come to the point where civil liberties are denied. I want the airways to be safe, but I also want my rights."
The new TSA policy, enacted Aug. 4 along with other rule changes, gives airport screeners additional discretion to search passengers' headgear, including turbans, which could conceal plastic or other nonmetal parts of explosive devices. Agency officials said the policy is not meant to single out any groups.
"We were looking at where people can hide" bomb components, TSA Administrator Kip Hawley said in a recent interview. "Whether it's a cowboy hat or a turban, this is what it is. And it was not directed at any one type of person or religion. It was directed at keeping bomb parts off of airplanes."
The measure set off an uproar in the country's well-organized Sikh community, whose members are on guard against being unfairly suspected as terrorists. To many, the new rules seem to cross a line from inconvenience to insult, from prudence to prejudice. [Link]
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