Screeners at San Francisco International Airport recently forced a Sikh man to remove his turban in public, place it in a bin, and then ran it through an x-ray machine last week, providing another example of how the Transportation Security Administration’s new screening policies do not keep America safe. The Sikh Coalition, the nation's largest Sikh civil rights organization, remains concerned that the TSA’s hastily-conceived headwear search policy endangers all Americans by focusing critical security resources on non-existent threats.
“If You Don’t Do it, I’ll Have You Escorted Out”
On August 23, 2007, Charanjit Singh Ghai’s trip from San Francisco to London became a nightmare. Charanjit was accompanying his daughter, a political science student at University of California Berkeley, to London for her semester abroad.
At the airport, Charanjit was able to successfully walk through a metal detector without sounding an alarm. Once he had cleared security and was waiting for his bags, a TSA screener tapped his shoulder and told him that his turban would nevertheless need to be patted down. He was surprised by the screener’s demand, especially since his mini-turban was more akin to a simple patka (a square cloth tied tightly over the head) than a turban. He asked the screener and her supervisor that his turban instead be checked with a hand-held wand. The supervisor replied that wanding was not possible for turbans and that a turban pat down was “mandatory.”
The supervisor threatened Charanjit: “If you don’t do it, I’ll have you escorted out.”
Under pressure, confused and distressed by the idea of having his turban touched by anyone else, Charanjit offered to remove his turban quickly to show he was not hiding anything. After he removed his turban, the supervisor insisted that he also be able to pat down Charanjit’s hair. Charanjit was shamefully forced to untie his hair in public view.
Again the supervisor threatened him, “If you don’t do it, I’ll have you escorted out.”
Standing with his head naked, Charanjit stood and waited as the supervisor humiliated him by placing his small cloth turban in a bin and through an x-ray machine. Charanjit’s shirt or pants, which both consisted of more cloth than his turban, were spared the X-ray machine.
“This exercise was all done to demean me,” Charanjit told the Sikh Coalition’s team of staff attorneys. “It was unbearable.”
An Ineffective Policy
The disgraceful public undressing of Charanjit Singh is a disturbing example of extreme but permissible conduct under the TSA’s new headdress policy. What happened to this proud Sikh man was not only hurtful to the whole Sikh community, but also diverted America’s resources away from genuine security threats.
While the Sikh Coalition is grateful that TSA’s top leadership is willing to find a “workable solution” to Sikh concerns about the policy, the Coalition remains troubled that the new headwear screening policy still remains in effect.
The Sikh Coalition is hopeful that its engagement with the TSA, along with other Sikh and non-Sikh organizations, will lead to a solution similar to the screening procedures put in place soon after the 9/11 attacks. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Sikh community groups worked closely with Department of Transportation officials to devise an airport screening protocol that would meet national security requirements, while safeguarding religious pluralism.
The Coalition will keep the community updated as our engagement with the TSA deepens. In the meantime, we continue to ask everyone to sign the community petition to Secretary Chertoff as a means of demonstrating grassroots concern with the new screening procedures, and to document your experience with the new screening procedures. [Sikh Coalition Media Advisory]
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