Eleven years ago, on Sept. 15, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed at his Phoenix gas station, in the first post-9/11 hate-motivated death, but not, by far, the last -- evidenced by last month's murders at a gurdwara in Wisconsin. These acts of violence are born in an environment that offers the "other" as the easy scapegoat for violent anger.

The TSA checkpoint is an easily identifiable contributor in creating this "other."

As a Sikh American couple, and frequent air travelers, we experience being segregated each time we travel. The nonturban-wearing woman is asked to "move ahead," while the turbaned and bearded man is subjected to additional screening simply because he looks different.

Meanwhile, we face the peering eyes of fellow passengers and murmurs from children passing by. His status as the "other" is confirmed because there must be a reason the turbaned man is stopped each time. It was the same "other" that caused the killing in Phoenix and Wisconsin.

Certainly, crimes such as these murders result from the confluence of several factors: ignorance, manipulation, psychological imbalance, economic strain. But they also share one constant: the readily available "other," the convenient outlet for brutality.


Advertisement

California just passed landmark civil rights legislation, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (AB 1964). The law prohibits segregation and strengthens the legal standard for religious accommodations in the workplace. Effectively, AB 1964 bars any employer from sending any worker who looks "different" to the back of the store. The law sends the right message to all workers and observers that we are all Americans, no matter how one appears.

The TSA, however, continues creating "others" every day, at the more than 450 airports in the United States. Since 2007, the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the U.S., has gathered reports from Sikh passengers demonstrating how Sikh travelers are routinely and unfairly profiled.

While the TSA was busy arbitrarily deeming turbans as "bulky clothing" requiring "secondary screening," a terror plot was unsuccessfully attempted in the Christmas Day bomber's underwear.

Sikh Americans were vindicated in their arguments that undergarments or pants have more room than turbans to hide the improvised explosive devices. Unfortunately, even today Americans who fit the mold of the "other" continue to be stopped, delayed, and secondarily screened for "special" procedures, while fellow passengers wearing bulky sweatshirts and flowing skirts generally cruise by.

Every time a person with religious headdress is asked to step aside, America is made more insecure. Ethnic and religious profiling is not only against core American values, it is also ineffective. Experts argue that profiling is dangerous because it provides terrorists a pattern that they can exploit to their advantage.

Policies targeting minorities through profiling, due to race, religion, or ethnicity do not provide real security; they at best provide a false sense of safety.

The fact is, if turbans were worn by a large number of Americans, they would probably be given the same consideration as trousers at the TSA checkpoint.

We need real security implemented at the checkpoint, not theatrics. The TSA must stop contributing to an environment where some Americans are painted as the "other" and become easy targets of anger and hate.

Prabhjot Singh is co-founder of the Sikh Coalition and currently serves on the coalition's board of directors. Mallika Kaur is a social justice attorney. They reside in Redwood City.