A New article regarding this incident:
Source: Guardian Unlimited
Arabophobia in the air
A security scare at Heathrow airport over a pack of playing cards has drawn attention to widespread racism among airlines, writes Middle East editor Brian Whitaker.
Friday December 15, 2000
There was a bizarre security alert in London this week. A British Airways Boeing 747, with 329 passengers on board, was just about to take off from Heathrow airport for Miami when a few playing cards were found in the lavatory by a crew member.
On the back of the cards was something printed in Arabic (suspicious, eh?), so the pilot abandoned his takeoff. Closer scrutiny of the Arabic writing revealed that it was nothing more sinister than a calendar, and the plane - having missed its flight slot - eventually took off five-and-a-half hours late.
British Airways remains far from apologetic. "You do not take chances," a spokeswoman said, as if that explained everything. Not taking chances is one thing, but in their attitude towards Arabs, many airlines display a phobia that is not just irrational but thoroughly racist.
Since the crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of Long Island in 1996, Arabophobia has run riot in the American air industry. Various media commentators blamed terrorists for the crash and pointed the finger at the Arab-American community.
In response to that, the Federal Aviation Administration, on the recommendation of a committee headed by Vice-President Al Gore, introduced a system of passenger "profiling" that was supposed to pick out likely terrorists.
Profiling assesses the trustworthiness of passengers by matching them against a list of criteria. The criteria are mostly secret, but it is known that a passenger travelling alone who has paid cash for the ticket and booked less than five days before departure is more likely to arouse suspicion than one who didn't and is travelling with family or friends.
Why that should point to a terrorist intent is baffling. Like many journalists, I often travel alone, pay cash and book at the last minute. There was also an incident a few months ago where the hijacker brought his family along for the ride.
After several years of applying this mumbo-jumbo to millions of passengers, the FAA is unable to point to a single case where profiling has led to the arrest of anyone who posed a threat to a plane or an airport. What profiling achieves in practice is to single out innocent passengers, mainly of Arab origin, for discriminatory treatment.
So many have been submitted to embarrassing public searches in front of other passengers, or to interrogations which made them miss their plane, that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee now provides a complaint form on its website for aggrieved passengers to fill in.
Basically, profiling gives a veneer of scientific respectability to something much more familiar and abhorrent: anti-Arab prejudice of the kind that has been promulgated over the years by countless Hollywood stereotypes. We saw this last August when American investigators of the EgyptAir crash tried to portray the co-pilot as an Islamic extremist then, when that failed, as a sex maniac.
In another controversial case, an American pilot abandoned his flight from Phoenix to Washington at Columbus (Ohio) because two Saudis on board were behaving "suspiciously". Security teams and sniffer dogs surrounded the plane and passengers were evacuated on to the runway.
The Saudis, both postgraduate students in their 30s, had, according to a security official, been "very interested in the airplane, asking questions passengers normally wouldn't ask about the plane and where it was going and where it had come from".
One was alleged to have jiggled the handle on the cockpit door, though he said he had only been looking for the toilet. After three hours' questioning the men were released and the FBI declared itself satisfied that no laws had been broken.
By way of explanation for its extraordinary behaviour, the airline said it had only been following rules laid down by the FAA: profiling is compulsory for all American airports and for all American airlines abroad.
In the meantime, the original justification for profiling has evaporated. Last August the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the TWA crash which led Vice-President Gore to recommend profiling was not, after all, caused by a terrorist but by a technical fault.