Muslims and Sikhs Respond to a White Man With an Assault Rifle at the Atlanta Airport


In the summer of 2005, during a trip to Toronto to visit their uncle, Hasan* and his younger brother were stopped by Transportation Security Administration agents at the Los Angeles International Airport.

"We had Pakistani passports," Hasan, a 31-year-old Pakistani-American living in Southern California, told Mic. "The guy checking us in at Delta [Airlines] just looked at us and chuckled."

The brothers were led into a special security room. Hasan's brother — a "gadgety guy," Hasan said — had been carrying two hard drives, a couple of laptops and one or two cellphones in his luggage, all of which were removed from their cases.

Hasan says the agents spent the next four hours working their way through each item, asking Hasan and his brother to charge up devices, run through ringtones on their phones, and even go buy batteries for battery-operated electronics.

They ended up catching the midnight flight to Toronto later that night and landed 10 hours later than they'd planned. Their luggage, which they were not permitted to take with them, arrived periodically in cartons over the next 10 days.

Ask any Muslim who has traveled through an American airport since Sept. 11, 2001 — or any Sikh, for that matter, who often get mistaken for Muslims — and they'll tell you this is not a surprising story.

Once the Justice Department opted to let the TSA continue using racial profiling in its airport and border security checks last December, it re-enshrined into law one of the more troubling law enforcement practices of the 21st century — one that's become de rigeur for countless brown-skinned, bearded, turban- or hijab-wearing travelers of various faiths and backgrounds.

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Numerous people Mic spoke to have been subjected to this practice. To hear them tell it, it has made air travel a nerve-wracking experience at best, and a highly inconvenient and humiliating one at worst.

"I always joke with my friends, 'If you want to skip the long security line at the airport just wear a hijab,'" Manar Hijaz, 27, who lives in Rancho Cucamonga and teaches at California State University, San Bernardino, told Mic via email. "On several occasions, and at several airports around the country, I and/or a family member have been approached by a TSA official for their not-so-discreet 'random' selection process."

Let's make one thing clear: The airport is nobody's best friend. 

You realize this each time you rack up $150 in checked baggage fees, or when the TSA finds ways to ogle your naked body from an X-ray silo and detect bomb residue by dusting your hands, but can't figure out how to get you onto your flight without making you take off your shoes.

This stressful environment gets even more stressful when you recognize how ineffective it is: An "internal investigation" recently found that TSA agents failed to detect "mock explosives or banned weapons" smuggled through airport security checkpoints 95% of the time they were tested, according to ABC News.

So what do you do when some of the busiest travel hubs in America turn out to be hotbeds of racial profiling and administrative ineptitude?

The answer depends on you: If you're white, for example — like John Cooley of Atlanta, Georgia — you stroll into an airport carrying an AR-15 assault rifle. You video-record what happens. And if anyone asks questions, you cite H.B. 60, the Georgia statute that allows you to carry loaded firearms nearly anywhere, including bars and "the public area of airports." 

You'll be fine, don't worry:

But if you are Muslim or Sikh, your airport experience is different. Intentionally provoking airport security for the hell of it is not a luxury you have, even if your means are legal. Simply showing up is provocation enough.

And the overarching message remains, both in the DOJ's decision and the incidents described above: Your First Amendment right to practice your religion, free of harassment, is decidedly less important than other people's Second Amendment right to carry guns — which killed 33,636 Americans in 2013 alone — in public spaces.

Not to mention that none of it reads like logical strategy for alleviating risk. "It's an ineffective way of screening passengers," said Harpreet Singh, a New York-based consultant. "It bothers me that our government is continuing this ineffective practice of racial profiling, because in doing so, it is also compromising the safety of all Americans."

The takeaway: The panic surrounding the perceived threat posed by terrorists dressed as Muslims has reached farcical levels of late. 

Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim and chaplain at Northwestern University, made headlines last week when she alleged that a United Airlines flight attendant refused to give her an unopened can of Diet Coke because it "could be used" as a weapon. The man next to Ahmad was given an unopened can of beer, no questions asked.

And Hasan, whose story was detailed at the beginning of this article, said his father had to make up a special list of guidelines to protect his sons during travel. These included: Be clean-shaven, look down to appear nonaggressive, always wear American sports gear — New England Patriots, if possible — and read up on the local sports news for the city you're landing in.

"It helps break the ice," he told them.

In America in 2015, you are statistically more likely to be killed by a police officer than a Muslim terrorist. The only fatal plane-related terror incident in the world this year was committed by a white non-Muslim, a Germanwings Airlines co-pilot. The New York Police Department dedicated an entire unit to spying on Muslim communities in the tri-state area between 2003 and 2014, trying to uncover terrorist plots; they failed to generated a single lead, and were disbanded after 11 years. 

And most recently, as mentioned earlier, the TSA has been exposed as a mess of ineffectuality.

Racial profiling does not make us safer. This grows increasingly clear the more evidence pours in, and the more Muslim and Sikh families get pulled aside by the TSA only to learn that they pose absolutely no threat. It's time for America to stop living out this racist fantasy and work on implementing smarter and more effective ways to protect its citizens. Anything less is a farce.

*Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.

Correction: June 5, 2015