Working for the Pat Down: TSA Turban Policy

On their classic album London Calling, the old punk band The Clash had a song with some lyrics that always puzzled me:

What are we gonna do now?
Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a Jew?
'Cause they're working for the clampdown (link)

I get the gist of the song -- it's a critique of the trend of rising fascism amongst British youth in the 1970s -- but "turban"? Quoi?

Anyway, this past week I learned that Sikh travelers with turbans can expect not the clampdown, but the pat-down, as the TSA has changed its security policies yet again. The BBC has the details:

US Sikh organisations have expressed anger over changes allowing airport security staff to "pat down" turbans.

Until now turbans have been searched or removed only to resolve an unexplained alarm from an airport metal detector.

But now security will have greater discretion to inspect turbans so that they can be manually checked for objects such as non-metallic weapons.

However Sikh groups have responded to the new measures by describing them as outrageous and discriminatory. (link)

Personally, I'm not so much outraged as annoyed and worried. I'm annoyed because I'm not sure how this is a rational or necessary change: metal detectors work. You couldn't hide a gun, a knife, or explosives inside a turban without it being pretty obvious. (But the TSA has a long history of irrational policies -- like the restrictions on baby formula, which have caused problems for us several times.)

I'm also worried because I have a feeling the new policies may be deployed selectively and in a non-standardized way at different airports, and according to the whim of individual TSA agents, who may or may not understand what the Sikh turban represents. Some Sikhs will certainly be asked to remove turbans even if there's no positive indication of anything concealed. (I've found that agents at smaller airports, like Manchester NH or Durham NC, are much more strict about enforcing policy than are the agents at bigger airports. At Philly, where the security lines are quite long and the agents are harried, they don't bother to stop you even if you have fluids -- no baby formula or bottled water hassles...)

The Sikh Coalition has been on this, and I got an email from them earlier this week with more specifics:

* A guidance to all TSA screeners nationwide on how to implement the new headwear procedure specifically lists the turban (in addition to cowboy hats and straw hats) as an item that can be subjected to secondary screening. Sikh travelers should therefore expect that turbans will be the subject of secondary screening, regardless of whether a metal detector indicates a metallic object is in the turban.
* The purpose of the secondary screening is to detect non-metallic objects. Therefore from the TSA’s perspective, it is irrelevant whether a Sikh’s turban sets off the metal detector or not.
* If requested, a private area will be provided for a pat-down search of a turban.
* A private area must be offered if a secondary search / pat-down leads to a request that a turban be removed.
* Despite the fact that the TSA guidance lists turbans as an example of headwear that can be the subject of secondary screening, a TSA screener is not required to conduct secondary screening of a turban. The screener can use his or her discretion to determine whether he/she believes the turban could conceal a non-metallic threat item.

People who have friends or family who wear turbans may want to pass the word along, so everyone knows what to expect when they next head to the airport. It might help to know that you're due for secondary screening whether or not you set off the alarm. Finally, it might help to know that you have the right to request the additional screening be done in a private room.

Personally, I'm digging out my old Clash t-shirt the next time I fly.


SEK said...

This I can answer: one of the reasons I go to the MLA without a beard is because every time I've worn one and tried to fly, I've been "randomly" selected by security. They see what they take to be "semitic" features and assume "Arab," thus "terrorist." In short, I think Strummer/Jones point out the very ignorance you describe, and thus it's doubly important to break out the London Calling tee.

Ruchira Paul said...

As a middle aged "brown" woman minus beard or turban, I myself have faced few problems with the TSA. But I always worry whenever my husband (always bearded) or my son (occasionally bearded) travel alone. I wonder if the European and American aviation security agencies have ever considered "browns only" segregated flights to save themselves and others the hassle and humiliation of ever expanding, intrusive searches. I wouldn't be surprised if they have privately discussed the matter.

In the 1980s and 90s I had witnessed Sikh men go through some humiliating encounters with the Delhi airport authorities. That doesn't happen any more. Hopefully, this too will pass some day and sanity will reign.

Buster said...

I can't believe you ever doubted Joe Strummer. I'm a little disappointed. In this TSA development, too.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that people have to put up with the inconvenience of being searched but what would you do if someone actually got past and caused a problem? Accuse the TSA of not doing enough! I am a older, white male or eastern European decent and an employee of the Federal government and I can't tell you how many times I get pulled for a random search while my co-workers traveling with me do not. Does it bother me, yes. I don't look threatening (at least I don't think so) but I get pulled anyway. It's actually come to be a joke amongst my co-workers. So what do I do about it, I laugh it off and appreciate the fact that the TSA inspectors have a God awful responsibility to perform consistently. Bottom line is, LIVE WITH IT!