With Khan reliving that experience on Thursday at a small airport in New York state, the question whether that parameter was designed deliberately to focus on people of certain names, religion, background, nationality or race has cropped up again. The possible answer is unlikely to placate a certain segment of Indian population that feels outraged at the actor’s treatment.
At some level it is understandable that the whole security apparatus has been designed to not just take out potential terrorists in their first attempt but to disrupt their operation at any and every stage. No one at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is likely to acknowledge that the system works the way it does because of a built-in combination of intelligent and brute logic as well as preordained bias.
Khan’s name or one that closely resembles his appears to be on a list of over a million others that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has compiled of people it thinks are, at the very least, of suspicious antecedents. Getting off that list for those like the actor who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism has been known to be a nightmare in America. The list has been a subject of serious scrutiny and criticism by civil liberties groups which believe it is sweeping in its reach and more often than not throws up those who have absolutely nothing to do with any terrorist groups.
On the face of it, Khan may have been randomly picked out by the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ database. The system at the White Plains, New York, airport threw up Khan’s name for any number of variable reasons. It is hard to speculate on the algorithm that triggered it.
Someone might argue that the Khan = Muslim = possible terrorist = detention logic, although profoundly offensive, seems to have been built into the system with the rationale that it is better to humiliate a thousand innocent Khans than let a potential terrorist Khan enter the US. However, this explanation does not make sense because Khan has been visiting the US for many years.
With his 2009 detention and subsequent embarrassment for the US authorities, some effort ought to have been made to ensure that red flags do not go up against his passport number and fingerprint again. Every visitor to the US and even permanent residents are fully fingerprinted on arrival every time. It is hard to comprehend why specific names attached to specific fingerprints and passport numbers cannot be exempted.
This time around though, the explanation could be that he arrived at a much smaller airport and by a private jet and managed to trigger the same action. The officials at White Plains, which is also known as the Westchester County Airport, had no choice once the red flags went up but to subject him to the standard procedures.
On the face of it, it may be compelling to argue that even a simple Google search, which shows 43,700,000 results against Khan’s name, should have at the very least made the detaining officer question his action and taken much less than nearly two hours to clear him. Such a Google search should have stopped any reasonable immigration officer in their tracks to wonder that for a terrorist, Khan has managed a fantastic cover of being one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Unfortunately though, the security parameters have been consciously designed not to adhere to standards of commonsense. They have been designed to be intrusive, as a result of which they do become excessive from time to time.
Perhaps behind creating a security system that depends as much on brute and random logic as intelligent sifting was the deeply embarrassing case of Mohammad Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 terror attacks. In 2005, Navy Captain Scott J. Phillpott, who was in charge of the Pentagon’s counterterrorism project codenamed ‘Able Danger’, created a stir when he said that in January 2000 his team had identified Atta as a member of a Al-Qaeda terror cell operating in Brooklyn, New York. And yet Atta was able to travel in and out of the US unmolested. Atta’s lapse was attributed to the fact that he first went by part of his name as Mohamed el-Amir and eventually traveled to the US in June 2000 as Mohammed Atta.
Security experts say that the random selection parameter is designed to make preventive determination more effective. They acknowledge that one of the negative fallouts is that many innocent people get singled out because of this parameter.