Her name is Helen, a Muslim woman in her mid-twenties. She’s scared to talk to me even though I’ve told her that I will change her name for my article so the authorities will have no idea who she is.
“I’m an easy target for this kind of thing,” she says, gesturing to the hijab secured around her head.
Helen was traveling through JFK airport security when she was flagged for further screening. She says she’s gotten used to this kind of treatment. However, the usual security treatment then took a strange turn. A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee asked to see Helen’s I-Phone.
Helen tells me she was hesitant to hand over her new $400 phone, and she was unclear as to why she had turn over her private property in order to board a plane.
“He said it could be used as a weapon,” she explains, shrugging. The shrugs says: So what was I supposed to do?
Helen gave the TSA employee her phone, and he proceeded to search through her list of contacts. Explaining the incident, Helen still squirms in her seat, and I can tell how violated the treatment made her feel.
The TSA employee then explained he would have to take her phone for further inspection, and that Helen could reclaim it later at the airport help desk. At this point in her story, Helen throws up her hands in exasperation.
When Helen went to reclaim her phone, the airport employees claimed they couldn’t find it.
“I said, ‘No, no, no. Look, I have his name! I was just here!’ They looked at me like I was crazy. They said, ‘Sorry, your phone isn’t here.'”
This kind of story isn’t uncommon. Understandably upset and furious, Helen went home to vent to her friends. To her surprise, many of her Muslim friends said they too had experienced this kind of airport theft.
“Items get stolen at the airport all the time by TSA staff,” says Udi Ofer, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s advocacy director.
In the United States, the Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. But there is a big loophole, Ofer explains, “On the issue of the Fourth Amendment, the biggest obstacle is that the courts have held that, by voluntarily flying, passengers waive their rights.”
To be clear: if TSA made this seizure of property an official policy, it would be considered illegal. However, it appears that many TSA employees are making this an unofficial perk of their job. If enough harassment victims step forward, Ofer explains, the NYCLU and ACLU would be happy to take the cases.
The problem is that harassment victims often feel afraid, and they’re too busy to spend months in litigation. However, this kind of harassment has a history of only getting worse if conscientious citizens don’t demand justice.
Now is a precarious time for Muslim-Americans. One need only watch a John McCain rally to understand that there exists danger in the forms of bigoted, hateful ideologies. But fear is ignorance’s ally. It is up to brave women like Helen to come forward with their stories and put an end to this harassment.
A government-sponsored thug caste that riffles through private property and illegally seizes the possessions of frightened citizens is behavior indicative of a fascist regime, but not the United States of America.
Even when airborne, we should still expect to keep our rights.
ALLISON KILKENNY can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org