Saturday, January 03, 2009

Ho Ho Homeland Security

In his long career as an electrical engineer, my father had worked for several companies in the aviation industry and so has been known to discuss the relative merits of certain seats on a particular aircraft in the event of an in-flight catastrophe. Sometimes this speculation takes place during an actual flight, much to the obvious emotional distress of his fellow passengers, who perhaps don't like to think about probability and design decisions in this way. To such people, my father will happily point out how much more dangerous transportation by automobile is mile-for-mile, as though they might be comforted by contemplating the odds of a gruesome roadside death as an alternative mental diversion.

So I had considerable sympathy for the family described in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, who were engaged in a discussion like the ones we have often had as frequent travelers about the safest seats on the plane. "Muslim families removed from AirTran flight get apology" provides the following details of the scenario that incited TSA personnel.

The Irfan family was boarding Thursday when Irfan's wife made a comment about the safest place to sit on the plane, according to Irfan's brother Atif, who was also on the flight with his wife and wife's sister.

"It was a very lighthearted conversation about the safest spot of the plane," said Atif, 29, who is a lawyer in Alexandria, Va. "But, I guess, these two teenage girls had gleaned from our conversation that we were going to try and take over the plane."

That conversation caused the eight family members and a friend, who was also traveling to the conference, to be escorted off the plane and questioned by FBI agents. Federal officials removed the rest of the passengers, did a sweep of the aircraft and then re-screened everyone before allowing the flight to depart about two hours behind schedule.

The Irfan brothers said Friday that they thought they had been profiled based on their appearances. The men had beards, and the women wore head scarves.

"We are Muslim Americans, and we fly a lot. So we understand there is a lot of scrutiny on us in the first place," Atif said. "But we consider ourselves to be model citizens. We were born here; we went to high school and college here. It was appalling to know that this type of stuff can happen to you."

In their formal declaration "TSA Statement on AirTran Flight 175" on the official TSA website, the agency defended its actions in much less venal terms.

Alert passengers reported what they believed were inappropriate comments, and flight attendants promptly notified the pilot in command. Federal air marshals onboard escorted the individuals in question off the plane at the pilot's request where they were met by local and federal officials to ensure they posed no threat to the flight. After interviewing the individuals, performing a sweep of the aircraft and rescreening all checked and carry-on baggage, the flight departed.

We support the pilot in command in making decisions he or she believes is in the best interest of those onboard the aircraft. TSA counts a vigilant traveling public as an important layer of security and continues to encourage passengers to be alert and report suspicious activity.

Of course, this is also the agency that used this cheery holiday photograph of Santa Claus being screened on its Evolution of Security blog during a week that many might consider such an image to be in bad taste, given the elaborate escape plans of multiple murderer Bruce Pardo, who inside the Santa disguise he wore during his killing spree had $17,000 in cash strapped to his body and airline tickets for an out-of-state flight.

The TSA also has new offerings on its YouTube channel. Look closely for the bad green screen halos near the spokesperson's head, since clearly the on-scene segments were clearly not shot at an actual airport location.

To its credit, the TSA has provided one use of computational media to the public that has some potential for rhetorical success, an online pulldown menu to check security line wait times at specific airports.

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