Hessian Abbess says he watched in humiliation as two security officers yanked clothes out of his carry-on bag in plain view of dozens of other travelers at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Hessian Abbess, an Arab lawyer going to a convention, was kept at the gate for 30 minutes that October day. He tried to show them a business card that identified him as member of the National Bar Association, but they paid no attention. "I felt threatened. I felt if I protested too much, I was going to eat airport carpet," Hessian Abbess says.
A US Airways gate agent told him he was detained because he fit a profile designed to identify travelers who may pose a security risk. But the agent wouldn't be more specific. Hessian Abbess doesn't believe it. "I fit neither a terrorist profile nor a drug trafficker profile. I was just F-W-A (flying-while-Arab)," he says.
Hessian Abbess’s resentment is shared by many Arab and Arab-American fliers who say racial and ethnic bias is playing a bigger part in who gets pulled aside for questioning and a thorough baggage check by airport security. Complaints like Hassan Abbass's have soared since the September 11 incident prompted stricter airport security nationwide.
The American Civil Liberties Union has received more than 1000 complaints this year, the most since the gulf war in 1991. Arab-Americans and Arabs have filed the most, the ACLU says. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has received 2000 complaints this year, 10 times more than in previous years.
"Profiling has become just a fancy word for racism or stereotyping," says committee spokesman Sam Hussein.
Federal officials won't say what criteria are used in profiling. But they deny any bias inherent in the system and say they take the complaints seriously. The Justice Department is reviewing a computerized profiling system. The model is expected to be an improvement over the written guidelines that airport employees use now.
Civil rights groups met with Secretary of Transportation to discuss concerns about the profiling system. Participants included the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU and the American Muslim Council. One result: By Dec. 31, signs will be posted at airports telling travelers how to contact the Department of Transportation if they have a complaint about security. The DOT says it is investigating 45 complaints about racial and ethnic concerns received this year. "We are going to be working with the airlines on the things we're hearing about," says DOT general counsel Nancy McFadden. "We're going to be vigilant about this."
Profiling is not new. American Airlines began using profiling in 1986, drawing on the expertise of former El Al employees who developed it for the Israeli airline.
Simply put, profiling is a screening system intended to ferret out travelers who might try to hijack a plane or smuggle a bomb aboard. It involves asking questions - "Did you pack your own bags" and "Did anyone ask you to...