// 10 years later, Muslim travelers still struggling
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« on: Sep 08, 2011 05:42 AM »


Muslim travelers say they're still saddled with 9/11 baggage

'There is no uniformity in the way in which the Department of Justice applies the law at every level'

Imagine it is 5 a.m. and you’ve landed in New York after a 12-hour overseas flight. Standing in the line for U.S. citizens, you wait as a border agent asks passengers ahead a few cursory questions, then waves them through. Your family is instead ushered into a separate room for more than an hour of searching and questioning.

This was the welcome that Hassan Shibly, traveling with his wife and infant son, said they received in August 2010, when they returned to the United States from Jordan, after traveling to Mecca.

“Are you part of any Islamic tribe? Have you ever studied Islam full time? How many gods do you believe in?” “How many prophets do you believe in?” the agent at New York’s JFK Airport asked, according to Shibly, 24, a Syrian-born Muslim American. He said the agent searched his luggage, pulling out his Quran and a hand-held digital prayer counter.

“At the end — I guess (the agent) was trying to be nice — he said, ‘Sorry, I hope you understand we just have to make sure nothing gets blown up,’” said Shibly, a law school graduate who grew up in Buffalo.

A decade after Islamic extremists used airplanes to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Muslim American travelers say they are still paying the price for terror attacks carried out in the name of their religion. At airports, ports and land crossings, many contend, they are repeatedly singled out for special screening and intrusive questioning about their religious beliefs. Others say they have been marooned overseas, barred from flights to the United States.

‘Stories come pouring out'
“Whenever a group of Muslims sit together … stories come pouring out,” said real estate agent Jeff Siddique, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Seattle for 35 years. “It’s story after story after story.”

That is supported by a survey released in August by the Pew Research Center, in which 36 percent of Muslim Americans who traveled by air in the last year said they had been singled out for special screening. The Transportation Security Administration does not keep detailed records, but a spokesman said that less than 3 percent of passengers receive a pat down, a primary form of secondary screening.

But while the U.S. Constitution prohibits discrimination according to religion, there is no way to determine whether the data supports the anecdotal evidence.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security releases only scant information on its anti-terrorism programs, including passenger screening, for security reasons. It has a clearly stated policy against racial and ethnic profiling, though it does encourage security personnel — both in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) which handles U.S. border entries, and in the TSA, which handles pre-flight screening — to focus on passengers’ connections to “countries associated with significant terrorist activity.”

The Justice Department, which sets the policy for Homeland Security, forbids racial and ethnic profiling. But if personnel are acting on specific intelligence, a certain group may be singled out. Justice Department guidance issued in 2003 gives this example:

“U.S. intelligence sources report that Middle Eastern terrorists are planning to use commercial jetliners as weapons by hijacking them at an airport in California during the next week. Before allowing men appearing to be of Middle Eastern origin to board commercial airplanes in California airports during the next week, (TSA and other agencies) may subject them to heightened scrutiny.”

But several civil rights groups say growing evidence points to targeting Muslims — and people who appear to be Muslim — without credible evidence of a crime or intent to commit one. In an array of legal cases, they are challenging the anti-terrorism bureaucracy to articulate its policy.

Among the questions they want answered: Is there a focus on Muslim travelers encoded in policy or encouraged by training? How do travelers end up on security watch lists, and is there any way to get off them? Does the U.S. government have the right to bar U.S. citizens from flying back into the country?

Rooting out 'extremist tendencies'
The difficulty is knowing where policy ends and personal discretion kicks in.

For example, depending on how the directive to focus on travelers to and from countries with active terrorist organizations is interpreted, it might implicate a large swath of American Muslims. The majority of this population is made up of recent immigrants with connections to their countries of origin in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

But Homeland Security recently launched an investigation of a flurry of complaints from Muslims who, like Shibly, say border agents went well beyond asking about their travels. Instead, the travelers say, they were questioned extensively about their religious beliefs and practices. Some reported being asked political questions, such as their views on the Iraq War or President Barack Obama.

One complaint filed by the nonprofit Council on American Islamic Relations with Homeland Security and the Justice Department said its Michigan branch alone has received “dozens of reports (from Muslim travelers) … that CBP agents pointed firearms at them, detained and handcuffed them without predication of crimes or charges, and questioned them about their worship habits.”

Shibly’s case is one of five included in a separate complaint filed by the the nonprofit Muslim Advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union in December.

Another case detailed in the complaint is that of New Jersey resident Lawrence Ho, who says that when he reached the U.S. border from Canada by car in February 2010 he was surprised to find the border agent knew that he had converted to Islam. Ho, who is Chinese American, said the border agent questioned him for nearly four hours about his Muslim beliefs. But an email to the CBP to complain about the encounter at the Rainbow Bridge checkpoint in New York didn’t get far.

"In 2001, the U.S. was attacked by Islamist extremists,” wrote a senior CBP officer in an email response to Ho. “If a CBP officer inquires as to a person's religious beliefs in order to uncover signs of extremist tendencies, that officer is well within his authority."

It is not clear if that statement is in line with Homeland Security policy. In response to msnbc.com queries, Homeland Security did not offer any detail about the ongoing investigation, but provided a general statement by email.

“DHS does not tolerate religious discrimination or abusive questioning – period,” wrote Homeland Security spokesman Chris Ortman. The department's office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties “has notified the complainants and their representatives that it will investigate these allegations and, if appropriate, the department will take corrective action.”

The ACLU and Muslim Advocates also filed a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking all records, standards and statistics pertaining to CBP questioning on religious and political beliefs and practices, border training programs and disclosure of how the travelers’ information is used.

“We hope … (DHS) will condemn the practice of asking any citizen or legal resident of the U.S. about their religious beliefs, political beliefs and religious practices,” said ACLU staff attorney Nusrat Choudhury. “We also hope that (it) will note the troubling nature of the fact that so many Muslim legal residents or citizens are being asked these kinds of questions.”

Behavior spotters
Screening is a multi-layer process, with decisions made at the federal level all the way down to the individual agent at the X-ray machine.

According to a spokesman for the TSA, some people are chosen randomly for secondary search, while others merit secondary screening if their luggage contains things that raise questions. The TSA is now adding a program called SPOT — Screening Passengers by Observation Technique.

“We have behavior detection officers who are all over the airport, looking for people exhibiting behaviors that are considered anomalous … doing things that suggest they're trying to hide something,” said TSA spokesman Nick Kimball. “They are observing the queue. When that person gets up to the front, they would be referred to the side.”

The TSA website calls the program “a positive step that does not require ethnic profiling but looks to the pattern of behavior. … These are tools that would allow us to be more precise, but without getting into racial profiling, which is a bad thing.”

The TSA is also required to conduct secondary screening according to two lists — the “no-fly” list and the “selectee” list, which are provided by the Terrorism Screening Center, a division of the FBI.

The screening center  says there are 16,000 individuals — including about 500 U.S. citizens — on the no-fly list, which bars the individuals on it from flying to, from or within the United States. Another 16,000 are on the selectee list, which triggers secondary screening.

Both are subsets of a consolidated watch list called the Terrorism Screening Database of “known or appropriately suspected terrorists.” The number of names in the database fluctuates, but at present it names 420,000 individuals, about 2 percent of them Americans, the screening center says. The FBI distributes relevant subsets of the database to different frontline agencies such as TSA, CBP, financial watchdogs and law enforcers. Even people stopped for traffic violations can be quickly checked against the list.

Each agency “must comply with the law, as well as its own policies and procedures to protect privacy rights and civil liberties,” the screening center said.

The effectiveness of the lists came into question after an attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day 2009, when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was not on either watch list, tried to detonate plastic explosives on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Ultimately he hurt only himself, but the scare prompted the screening center to expand the criteria it uses to populate the no-fly list.

By design, none of the criteria that land an individual in the database or on the watch lists is made public.

“People are put on the watch list based on a series of criteria,” said Sheldon Jacobson, a security expert and computer science professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Nobody really knows them. They are very secret and they keep evolving. In many ways (the government) has to keep it private because if they give it out, people will game the system.”

That secrecy presents a conundrum for many people who believe they are on a list and do not belong there.

Some of the cases involve mistaken identity because a traveler possesses a common name like Mohammad — the Arabic equivalent of Smith. As a result, some civil rights lawyers believe that the lists affect two to three times as many fliers as are legitimately on them.

Marooned
One of the most chilling cases surrounding the no-fly list is that of Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year-old American citizen of Somali heritage.

Mohamed had been visiting family in Yemen and Somalia — two countries with active Islamist terrorist groups. When he went to the Kuwait airport to extend his visa in December, he was arrested and taken to a detention facility, where he was blindfolded, questioned and beaten by unknown agents, according to his lawyer, Ghadeir Abbas.

The questioners were especially interested in information about Anwar al-Awlaki, a dual U.S. and Yemeni citizen turned Islamic extremist in Yemen, Abbas said. Mohamed insisted he had no information and, after a week, Kuwait ordered his deportation.

But when he tried to board a flight to the United States, he was told he was on the no-fly list. Only after Abbas filed a lawsuit on his behalf in January was Mohamed allowed to return home to Virginia.

Mohamed is pursuing a claim for damages and to be removed from the list. The federal government wants the case thrown out on the grounds that it is irrelevant now that he is back in the U.S. Meantime, it will not confirm if he is on the no-fly list. The lawsuit is pending, after a judge moved it to a circuit court on jurisdictional grounds.

“It’s this very Kafkaesque world where no one has charged (people on the list) with any crime … but they can see its effects,” said Abbas, an attorney with CAIR. “… His case is the most heinous example of what the no-fly list can do.”

Other pending court cases allege that Muslim American travelers have encountered similar violations of their rights, including some who were forced to take thousand-mile circuitous land routes to get back into the U.S. or were stuck overseas for weeks or months until lawyers here took up their cases.

The ACLU, which argues that the watch list system is unconstitutional, has filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, the FBI and the Terrorist Screening Center naming 20 people — 18 U.S. citizens and two permanent residents — who allegedly have been prevented from boarding airline flights to or from the U.S. The plaintiffs say they were told by security or airline staff that their names were on the no-fly list.

“Thousands of people have been barred altogether from commercial air travel without any opportunity to confront or rebut the basis for their inclusion, or apparent inclusion” on the no-fly list," the lawsuits says. "The result is a vast and growing list of individuals whom, on the basis of error or innuendo, the government deems too dangerous to fly, but too harmless to arrest.”

In response, the government objected on jurisdictional grounds and argued that the policy does not violate the constitutional rights of the travelers because “they have not been denied the right to re-enter and reside in the United States, nor have they been denied the ability to travel.”

But critics of the list note that in cases like that of the lead plaintiff, Ayman Latif, a 33-year-old U.S. citizen and disabled Marine Corps veteran, that would have meant weeks of travel from the Middle East to the United States by sea and land, at considerable additional expense.

The U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, ruling that it should go instead to an appeals court. The ACLU is appealing that decision.

Double and triple checked
Names on the selectee list also are not public, but travelers can surmise they are on it if, like Hassan Shibly, they are repeatedly singled out for secondary screening.

Here’s how it usually plays out, according to Shibly: When he prepares to fly, the computer system prevents him from checking in online. Airport kiosks will not process his boarding pass and instead instruct him to see an agent. The agent types in his name, and then calls a phone number. The agent and Shibly wait for up to 20 minutes for a response. Only then does he typically receive a boarding pass.

After that, Shibly usually gets pulled out of line for a pat down at the TSA screening point. On some flights, there is a final check-in by the airline employee taking boarding passes at the gate.

And when he returns to the U.S., Shibly said, he encounters more special screening.

CBP documents obtained via a FOIA request by Muslim Advocates show that Shibly has been pulled aside for secondary screening at border points at least 20 times since 2004.

Shibly said he has jumped through extra hoops so many times now that he is surprised by exceptions.

“Twice I was able to print my boarding pass at the kiosk. It was great,” he said.

Is relief on the way?
Over time, federal security officials have tried a number of different programs geared to cut down on screening of travelers who don’t pose a security threat.

The Travel Redress Inquiry Program, or TRIP, introduced in 2007, allows travelers who think they have been wrongly placed on a list to file an online grievance for the review of their cases. In response, TRIP applicants receive a letter stating that Homeland Security has corrected any problems it found, though it does not confirm whether the person was on a list or not, or that there was a problem.

But the jury remains out. TRIP may be addressing cases of mistaken identity — in which a person is targeted because their name matches that of a legitimate suspect — but critics say it apparently doesn’t allow an individual on the no-fly or selectee lists to dispute why they are included.

A program called SECURE, adopted by TSA in November 2010, adds another layer of behind-the-scenes cross referencing to reduce cases of mistaken identity.

‘Roach motel’
With the introduction of TRIP and SECURE, some Muslim Americans report fewer hassles, but it’s easy to find exceptions.

Sayeed “Syd” Rahman, a consultant in Herndon, Va., said he applied for a redress number in 2009 after pre-flight screening made him miss his flight.

But he has seen no change.

“This is in spite of getting a redress number,” said Rahman. “And in spite of being in the U.S. for 35 years, in spite of having a wife who is American and a son who actually qualifies as a Son of the American Revolution.”

Rahman says that until recently he even had Department of Defense clearance for work that involved the military.

“This list … is like a roach motel. You can check in but you can’t check out,” said Rahman.

Immediately after 9/11, profiling was the biggest problem for Muslim travelers, said attorney Banafsheh Akhlagi, a civil rights expert who has handled several thousand discrimination complaints in the past decade.

Now, she believes there are many factors causing travelers' woes, including a complex web of security policies built over the past decade and immense pressure on frontline personnel not to miss a threat.

"Here we are 10 years later and we are discovering that there is no uniformity in the way in which the Department of Justice applies the law at every level,” said Akhlaghi. "They administer an edict that gets funneled down to border security and TSA, who are then charged with enforcing these policies which they may not understand without the necessary training. As a result, these individuals, due to government pressure, are interpreting and enforcing the laws with more gravity than the law was originally intended to do."

But Jacobson, the security expert, said the inconvenienced travelers aren't the only ones suffering.

"I'm sympathetic to all people involved, both those who are subject to too much screening and to the screeners," he said. "Quite frankly, it’s a hard job."

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44334738/ns/us_news-9_11_ten_years_later/?GT1=43001

The Almighty Allah says,

"When a servant thinks of Me, I am near.
When he invokes Me, I am with him.
If he reflects on Me in secret, I reply in secret,
And if he acknowledges Me in an assembly,
I acknowledge him in a far superior assembly."

- Prophet Muhammad (SAW), as reptd by Abu Huraira
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« Reply #1 on: Sep 08, 2011 08:39 AM »

Salam alaikum

This is so sad...and scary!  I am not looking forward to transitting through a US airport later this year...

May Allah swt make it easier for all of us, and grant us strength and patience in the face of this..

Salam
S.

P.s I know the brother in the article!! madinaflag
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« Reply #2 on: Sep 08, 2011 06:33 PM »

walaikum salaam,

I don't think you'll have any problems shahida. They don't seem to be interested in single women. (our only benefit? lol) I've traveled all around the US alone and overseas and never got "questioned" Alhamdulillah Alhamdulillah!! I don't think I'm on any type of list, but know for a fact some men in my family are because they get interrogated every time they come into the US Sad , they can't print boarding passes, and the airports go through all their stuff one by one.

The most the airport does is make me "pat down my headgear" and then they'll swab my hands with those bomb detecting things.  Roll Eyes And usually that's my small airport here because they're just dumb. If you wear big abayas though they'll take you into another room and do a more thorough check with the wand and stuff! But they don't question you or anything.

Ameen on your duas.

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« Reply #3 on: Sep 13, 2011 11:28 PM »

Hey guys, don't know if you heard about this, it just happened on Sunday - a woman was profiled, cuffred and strip-searched: There is a news article, but I'll share her blog post here:

Source: http://shebshi.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/some-real-shock-and-awe-racially-profiled-and-cuffed-in-detroit/

Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit

Silly me. I thought flying on 9/11 would be easy. I figured most people would choose not to fly that day so lines would be short, planes would be lightly filled and though security might be ratcheted up, we’d all feel safer knowing we had come a long way since that dreadful Tuesday morning 10 years ago.

But then armed officers stormed my plane, threw me in handcuffs and locked me up.

My flight from Denver landed in Detroit on time. I sent a text message to my husband to let him know we had landed and I would be home by dinner. The plane stopped on the tarmac, seemingly waiting to have the gate cleared. We waited. I played on my phone, checking Facebook, scrolling through my Twitter feed. After a while of sitting there, I decided to call my husband to tell him the plane was being delayed and I would call him when I got off the plane.

Just as I hung up the phone, the captain came over the loudspeaker and announced that the airport authorities wanted to move the airplane to a different part of the airport. Must be a blocked gate or something, I thought. But then he said: Everyone remain in your seats or there will be consequences. Sounded serious. I looked out the window and saw a squadron of police cars following the plane, lights flashing. I turned to my neighbor, who happened to be an Indian man, in wonderment. What is going on? Others on the plane were remarking at the police as well. Getting a little uneasy, I decided the best thing for me to do was to tweet about the experience. If the plane was going to blow up, at least there’d be some record on my part.

Stuck on a plane at Detroit airport…cops everywhere

Soon the plane was stopping in some remote part of the airport, far from any buildings, and out the window I see more police cars coming to surround the plane. Maybe there’s a fugitive on the plane, I say to my neighbor, who is also texting and now shooting some photos of the scene outside. He asks me to take a few, as I have a better angle from my window seat. A few dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers are huddled off the side of the plane. I don’t see any guns, and it isn’t clear what’s going on.

So I continued to tweet:

A little concerned about this situation. Plane moved away from terminal surrounded by cops. Crew is mum. Passengers can’t get up.

Then what looked like the bomb squad pulled up. Two police vans and a police communication center bus parked off the road. I started to get nervous and rethink my decision to fly on 9/11.

Cops in uniform and plainclothes in a huddle in rear of plane.

We had been waiting on the plane for a half hour. I had to pee. I wanted to get home and see my family. And I wanted someone to tell us what was going on. In the distance, a van with stairs came closer. I sighed with relief, thinking we were going to get off the plane and get shuttled back to the terminal. I would still be able to make it home for dinner. Others on the plane also seemed happy to see those stairs coming our way.

I see stairs coming our way…yay!

Before I knew it, about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen–bigger than what the guards carry at French train stations.

My last tweet:

Majorly armed cops coming aboard

Someone shouted for us to place our hands on the seats in front of us, heads down. The cops ran down the aisle, stopped at my row and yelled at the three of us to get up. “Can I bring my phone?” I asked, of course. What a cliffhanger for my Twitter followers! No, one of the cops said, grabbing my arm a little harder than I would have liked. He slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.

The cops brought us to a parked squad car next to the plane, had us spread  our legs and arms. Mine asked me if I was wearing any explosives. “No,” I said, holding my tongue to not let out a snarky response. I wasn’t sure what I could and could not say, and all that came out was “What’s going on?”

No one would answer me. They  put me in the back of the car. It’s a plastic seat, for all you out there who have never been tossed into the back of a police car. It’s hard, it’s hot, and it’s humiliating. The Indian man who had sat next to me on the plane was already in the backseat. I turned to him, shocked, and asked him if he knew what was going on. I asked him if he knew the other man that had been in our row, and he said he had just met him. I said, it’s because of what we look like. They’re doing this because of what we look like. And I couldn’t believe that I was being arrested and taken away.

When the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11 and Arabs and Arab-looking people were being harassed all over the country, my Saudi Arabian dad became nervous. A bit of a conspiracy theorist at heart, he knew the government was watching him and at any time could come and take him away. It was happening all over. Men were being taken on suspicion of terrorist activities and held and questioned–sometimes abused–for long periods of time. Our country had a civil rights issue on its hands. And, in the name of patriotism we lost a lot of our liberty, especially those who look like me.

I never had any run-ins with the law. Since 9/11, though I felt a heightened sense of how my appearance would affect my travel plans, I never had any concrete reason to think I would be targeted. I passed through security without excessive searching (except that one time they thought they saw a pocket knife in my husband’s backpack, which they couldn’t find anyway even though it was there). Because I am my father’s daughter I am aware of the possibility of anti-Arab and anti-Semitic sentiments that have increased dramatically, but luckily  no members of my family nor myself have had to endure what so many others have gone through in this country and throughout the world. As Americans we are scared and horrified by acts of terror. But I am not sure that what we are doing to dissuade and protect are working.

We arrived at an offsite building and remained in the squad car for a few minutes. The Indian man was taken out of the car first, and an officer stood at the door to make sure I didn’t go anywhere. I asked him several times what was going on and he wouldn’t answer me. It was like I was invisible. I felt so helpless and shocked. I was being treated like a criminal.

Then it was my turn. I got out of the car and was led, still cuffed, to a cell. “Are you serious?” I asked the officer, and he said yes. The heavy metal door was shut and locked behind me. Again, I asked what was going on and why was I here. Finally he said, they will let you know later. They are going to ask you some questions.

I sat down on the metal cot that hung off the wall. It had a thin, green vinyl mattress–mattress is a generous term–that offered no comfort. It was about a 6-by-10 cell, the concrete walls were painted a light yellow but were streaked with black dirt. The floor was some sort of stainless steel, and a stainless steel toilet that has probably never seen the good side of a scrubbing brush, instructed me to keep holding my stretched bladder as long as I could. Near the ceiling above the toilet there was a video camera.

A plainclothes officer stood came to my door and asked me if I spoke English. Something in me snapped at that question. Of course I spoke English I’m an American citizen, you asshole! Well, I left the expletive out. “Ok,” he said and stood watch outside my door saying he wanted to make sure I didn’t “flush anything.” He also wouldn’t tell me what was going on.

As I sat and waited, quietly contemplating my situation, the other Indian man was getting questioned in the main room outside. I couldn’t see what was going on, but I could hear a bit. They asked him where he was from, did he have any family, where were his shoes. He talked quietly and agreeably. I wondered if he was as incensed as I was or if he had entered this country expecting harassment from the American authorities.

They took him to another room, and I heard an officer tell him to remove his clothes. He was going to be searched. I could not fully grasp what was happening. I stared at the yellow walls and listened to a few officers talk about the overtime they were racking up, and I decided that I hated country music. I hated speedboats and shitty beer in coozies and fat bellies and rednecks. I thought about Abu Ghraib and the horror to which those prisoners were exposed. I thought about my dad and his prescience.  I was glad he wasn’t alive to know about what was happening to me. I thought about my kids, and what would have happened if they had been there when I got taken away. I contemplated never flying again. I thought about the incredible waste of taxpayer dollars in conducting an operation like this. I wondered what my rights were, if I had any at all. Mostly, I could not believe I was sitting in some jail cell in some cold, undisclosed building surrounded by “the authorities.”

I heard the officers discuss my impending strip search. They needed to bring in a female officer. At least they were following protocol, or something to that nature. Still, could this really be happening?

Eventually a female uniformed officer came in. She looked like a fat Jada Pinkett Smith, and in a kind but firm voice explained what was going to happen. I was to stand, face the wall in a position so the camera above the toilet couldn’t see, and take off my clothes. I complied. She commented on my tattoo, saying, “Oh you have one of those things–good and evil, right?”

“Yin and yang. Balance,” I said, grabbing my clothes to redress.

“You understand why we have to do this, right? It’s for our own protection,” she told me.

Because I am so violent. And pulling me off an airplane, handcuffing me and patting me down against a squad car didn’t offer enough protection. They also needed to make sure all my orifices were free and clear.

She apologized for having to do the strip search, and I asked her to tell me what was going on. She said she didn’t know but someone would come and talk to me. She put my handcuffs back on and left. The other officer stood guard outside. I told him I needed to call my husband. He said I could use the phone later.

As I sat in my cell trying not to think about my full bladder, they brought another man in. I wondered if he had been on the plane as well. Were they going to bring everyone in or had they just singled us out? He spoke belligerently, and I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying. But I did hear two officers talking about the man who stole a $3,000 watch at the security checkpoint. Now there’s a real crime. What was I doing here?

I had no idea how much time had passed. It was about 4:00 when I sent my last tweet on the plane. I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. I was tired, confused, angry and bored. I wanted my phone. I wanted to call my husband so he could come to Detroit and rescue me. I wanted to update my status so my friends weren’t freaking out. Did I also want a lawyer?

Another female officer, this one in jeans and a t-shirt came to visit me. She introduced herself as an agent–Homeland Security. She removed my handcuffs and had me follow her to a different room down a long hall and through a few doors. As we walked, I got a glimpse of the watch-stealer, a chubby middle-aged white guy with a buzz cut. He didn’t look too different from some of the officers.

She led me to a small, white room where a man who introduced himself as an FBI agent was waiting for me. I sat on one of three chairs at a small metal table, and the female agent sat across from me. They both offered me their badges for inspection, not that I would have known the difference, but they were calm and not pushy. I appreciated that. The male agent proceeded to ask me a series of questions about where I had been, where I was going, about my family, if I had noticed any suspicious behavior on the plane. The other agent took notes while I talked. They asked if I knew the two men sitting next to me, and if I noticed them getting up during the flight or doing anything I would consider suspicious.

I told them no, and couldn’t remember how many times the men had gotten up, though I was sure they had both gone to the bathroom in succession at some point during the flight.

They had done some background check on me already because they knew I had been to Venezuela in 2001. They asked about my brother and sister and asked about my foreign travel. They asked what I did during the flight. I told them I didn’t get up at all, read, slept and played on my phone (in airplane mode, don’t worry). They asked about my education and wanted my address, Social Security, phone number, Facebook, Twitter, pretty much my whole life story.

Again, I asked what was going on, and the man said judging from their line of questioning that I could probably guess, but that someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity. What is the likelihood that two Indian men who didn’t know each other and a dark-skinned woman of Arab/Jewish heritage would be on the same flight from Denver to Detroit? Was that suspicion enough? Even considering that we didn’t say a word to each other until it became clear there were cops following our plane? Perhaps it was two Indian man going to the bathroom in succession?

He warned me that the last time an incident like this happened back in December, they had to interview everyone on the plane and no one got to go home for six hours. It was going to be a long haul.

They asked me if I wanted to add anything that they hadn’t asked. I said no. Then they asked if I needed anything. I said I needed a real bathroom, and the female officer, saying she didn’t blame me, offered to take me to the officers’ bathroom. I must have peed straight for five minutes.

She walked me back to my cell, telling me it was for my own protection as they had brought in the rest of the passengers for questioning. They would fetch my stuff from the plane and allow me to call my husband. My cell had been occupied by the Indian man I had sat next to on the plane and in the squad car. So I waited for them to move him to the second cell that was holding the watch stealer. As I passed by the small window in that room I could see the watch stealer splayed out on the cot. He appeared to be asleep. I wondered where the Indian man would sit.

After fingerprinting me and asking me about my height/weight/place and date of birth and so on, a middle-aged white cop with a beer belly and a flat top returned me–without handcuffs–to the cell. I waited, wondering if I would be spending the night locked up. I thought about the last words my husband said to me while I was still on the plane waiting on the tarmac, “They must have found out there was a Hebshi on the plane.” We joke about this at times, that because of my ethnicity I am being scrutinized but I had no intention of putting that out to the universe and making it happen.

I thought about Malcom X and how bravely and fastidiously he studied and wrote while he was in prison, how his solitude enabled him to transform his anger into social change and personal betterment. That’s when I decided to write this post. I needed to explain what had happened–was happening–to me. I was not going to be silent. Still, I wondered what my rights were, and though I felt violated and scared I wasn’t sure that our new laws protected me from this treatment.

The female agent returned to my cell with my cell phone. She wanted me to show her my tweets–that were simultaneously posted onto Facebook–I had composed while on the plane. She joked that she didn’t even have a Facebook account. She left for a few minutes then returned and allowed me to call my husband. She said I would be released in a few minutes.

The sound of his voice brought me to tears, but I tried to remain calm. I gave him a one-minute recap of my situation, which only left him confused. I told him I would call him when I got to my car, which was parked in an airport lot.

I hung up the phone and followed the officer out of the cell and into another small room where the male FBI agent was waiting accompanied by another FBI agent–possibly the head honcho on duty. He said the three of us were being released and there was nothing suspicious found on the plane. He apologized for what had happened and thanked me for understanding and cooperating. He said, “It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.” He said they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like.

He said there had been 50 other similar incidents across the country that day.

I was led out another door and down a long hall where I gathered my bags, which had been removed from the plane and searched. In the hallway I saw the other two men who had also been detained. They seemed happy to be being released as well. It felt strange to smile at them, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

We walked outside of the building, and for the first time I saw that we were at the airport police station, which also doubled as the spot for the local Homeland Security office to reside–an office that didn’t exist 10 years ago. It was starting to get dark. But I still didn’t know what time it was.

Another officer drove me to my car in the airport parking lot. As he plopped into the drivers seat and me into the passenger’s seat of the unmarked sedan, he apologized for not having air conditioning, but being a descendant of desert people I obviously didn’t mind the heat. He asked me if I was OK to drive back to my home in Ohio, and I said I was, though I wasn’t sure I was. I wasn’t sure how this would affect me. I am still not sure.

All I know, is I probably won’t be flying again on Sept. 11.

In the aftermath of my events on Sept. 11, 2011, I feel violated, humiliated and sure that I was taken from the plane simply because of my appearance. Though I never left my seat, spoke to anyone on the flight or tinkered with any “suspicious” device, I was forced into a situation where I was stripped of my freedom and liberty that so many of my fellow Americans purport are the foundations of this country and should be protected at any cost.

I believe in national security, but I also believe in peace and justice. I believe in tolerance, acceptance and trying–as hard as it sometimes may be–not to judge a person by the color of their skin or the way they dress. I admit to have fallen to the traps of convention and have made judgments about people that are unfounded. We live in a complicated world that, to me, seems to have reached a breaking point. The real test will be if we decide to break free from our fears and hatred and truly try to be good people who practice compassion–even toward those who hate.

I feel fortunate to have friends and family members who are sick over what happened to me. I share their disgust. But there was someone on that plane who felt threatened enough to alert the authorities. This country has operated for the last 10 years through fear. We’ve been a country at war and going bankrupt for much of this time. What is the next step?

The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another:  [9:71]
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« Reply #4 on: Sep 14, 2011 02:41 AM »

That is really sad Sad The poor girl, looks like a horrible horrible experience. May Allah protect us all.

We've looked into this type of questioning and according to a few lawyers you can't "refuse to answer or be silent" like you can if they came to your door or arrested you. So they really do use planes as an opportunity to interrogate people and find out things. (Like they don't already do illegal wiretapping/internet/informants and other snooping!!)

Not sure what the point of this type of harsh treatment of ppl is. The vast, and I mean VAST majority of ppl they do this to are 100% innocent and it's not like they are deterring any real terrorists by this. And even more ridiculous is that they target the same people over and over again!!! even on the same trip...! Keeping us safer or turning us into a police state??
 

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They asked about my education and wanted my address, Social Security, phone number, Facebook, Twitter, pretty much my whole life story.

Again, I asked what was going on, and the man said judging from their line of questioning that I could probably guess, but that someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity. What is the likelihood that two Indian men who didn’t know each other and a dark-skinned woman of Arab/Jewish heritage would be on the same flight from Denver to Detroit? Was that suspicion enough? Even considering that we didn’t say a word to each other until it became clear there were cops following our plane? Perhaps it was two Indian man going to the bathroom in succession?
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« Reply #5 on: Sep 14, 2011 08:09 AM »

This article has her picture: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44501310/ns/us_news-security/t/flight-anniversary-ends-handcuffs-housewife

She's not brown and nor does she wear hijab and she's half Arab/ half Jewish!!!
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« Reply #6 on: Sep 14, 2011 03:26 PM »

Yeah, I believe her background was mentioned in her post Sis J, but yeah, still shocking - but there was an Indian man involved and they were just pooled together by the suspecting/fearful passengers.

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The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another:  [9:71]
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