Humiliating a Sikh man is just another instance of the TSA’s incompetence

In February, comedian Jasmeet Singh was taking a flight out of SFO when he was pulled aside for an additional security screening. Because the TSA demands that Sikh men singled out for screening remove their turbans, he requested a private screening, as Sikh men do not uncover their hair and the dastaar is a sacred garment. Though Sikh men are often profiled in security and subjected to unfair treatment, he claimed that this isn’t what bothered him about the experience. What bothered him was that the TSA refused to provide a mirror in the screening room, telling him he’d have to walk across the airport uncovered to find a bathroom in order to put on and adjust his dastaar.

This is beyond offensive, and it joins a long and ever-growing list of TSA foulups when it comes to cultural sensitivity, from abusing trans women to forcing members of religions who cover their hair or dress modestly to expose themselves in public. The TSA apologises and wrings its hands after every incident (in addition to fobbing it off on independent contractors, as it did in this case), but this just serves to underscore the fact that the agency doesn’t care about making culturally sensitive policy decisions.

There’s a simple approach to cultural sensitivity like trans literacy, competence with disabled people, and familiarity with people of faith: Setting a standard in consultation with members of these groups, requiring it in TSA training, and enforcing it. At airports where the TSA works directly, the agency can oversee agents to make sure they are using standardised procedures that include adherence to these guidelines. Airports using contractors should be audited for adherence to cultural sensitivity guidelines as well as other TSA standards.

This should not by any stretch of the imagination be rocket science. It’s basic civil rights, and also basic human rights. The TSA has forced disabled people out of wheelchairs, loudly deadnamed trans people, forced Muslim women to take off the hijab, destroyed mobility devices, mocked trans women for ‘anomalies’ in their anatomy, invaded the privacy of religious men. The agency’s repeated tendency to engage in these activities shows that it clearly doesn’t care, despite whatever it may claim when challenged on the subject. If it did, this wouldn’t be an issue that crops up like clockwork.

Numerous civil rights organizations have repeatedly advocated for changes to TSA policy in addition to offering their services to help the agency develop more culturally competent practices. These same organizations have provided tools for individual travelers, like the FlyRights app. They’ve named and shamed the TSA when cases like this one occur, which they do on a regular basis, and some work in solidarity with each other, supporting people of marginalised groups even when they don’t necessary represent those groups, because the TSA’s indifferent policies and enforcement of same hurt everyone.

Profiling people like Singh doesn’t make the air safer in the first place. Humiliating him certainly doesn’t, especially since there’s no policy saying that screening rooms can’t have mirrors, and in fact, the TSA is supposed to have them. After private screenings people may need to adjust religious garments or just make sure their appearances are neat, whether TSA agents roughly handled someone’s natural hair or rumpled the waistline of a skirt. Most people want to look reasonably neat when they go out in public, and in the case of religious garments, having a compromised appearance can feel like being naked, in addition to feeling like a profound violation of the rules of your faith. Though few religious officials would argue that you should be shamed or punished for it, that doesn’t matter. We don’t make people walk naked across airports and roughly tell them that they should ‘find a bathroom to get dressed in.’

We must find a way to make sure that situations like this don’t continue to happen. Clearly public outcry doesn’t work. Advocacy organisations aren’t enough, even when they’re filing or threatening to file suits to protect the rights of minority passengers. Legislation might be effective, but that requires getting Congress to care, something that’s especially unlikely right now given that conservatives have no vested interest in protecting minorities and thus don’t have a reason to bother showing up for votes, let alone actually passing legislation that would pressure the TSA to develop better polices for marginalized passengers.

Security theatre in the United States grows worse every year. The longer it successfully evades challenge, the harder it becomes to challenge, in a vicious feedback cycle that solidifies these kinds of actions. Today, some members of the public cry out about injustice in these settings. Tomorrow, that number will shrink. The next day, even fewer will speak. More and more laws will pile on the original injustice. Eventually, victims of this kind of injustice are left with no recourse at all, and those who were smug and secure in their belief that they were exempt may find themselves in for a very rude awakening.

We talk every year about needing to fight back as our civil rights slowly trick away, but we haven’t seen any positive change. The new state of America is one in which privacy rights are so compromised that people just accept violations complacently, either believing that they’re still safe, or thinking that such violations are an inevitable part of the landscape, one impossible to push back on. This shouldn’t be the case. Everyone is entitled to privacy and protections, including mirrors in private TSA screening rooms. If the TSA is going to continue to try to justify its existence with the bogeyman of terrorists, if it’s going to continue profiling and persecuting minorities, it had better damn well provide them with the rudiments of courtesy.

Image: Sikh Guy Portrait, Chris Goldberg, Flickr