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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1889

Letter From America: Travel Paranoia

By Habib Siddiqui

How paranoid can one become? Consider the latest laptop ban.

Last Tuesday, the U.S. and U.K. banned people flying from much of the Middle East and North Africa from carrying laptops, tablets and other large electronic devices in the airplane cabin because of concerns about terrorism. While the ban notice states this is not a public regulation but it does request that the Middle Eastern airlines comply within 96 hours of its release, on Tuesday at 3 a.m. Eastern time. Correspondingly, for any airline refusing to obey the order, the U.S. is prepared to work with the FAA to take certificates away to prevent the airline from flying into the United States.

Laptops are being seen as a security threat, especially following a 2016 explosion. A Daallo Airlines flight, originating from Mogadishu, Somalia, had a laptop bomb explode in midair, causing a hole in the side of its fuselage. That bomber was killed, and luckily all the passengers and crew were secure as the plane landed safely.

The nine affected airlines are Egyptair, Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Turkish Airlines and their affected airports for flights to the U.S. include Cairo, Egypt; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, UAE; Istanbul, Turkey; Doha, Qatar; Amman, Jordan; Kuwait City; Casablanca, Morocco; and Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Any device bigger than a smartphone must be checked now into the luggage hold. They operate about 50 flights a day to the US from 10 airports in the mainly Muslim countries, including major hubs such as Dubai and Istanbul.

The UK restrictions apply to six countries affecting all flights out of Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Lebanon. The latter two countries -- Tunisia and Lebanon – are not on the U.S. list.

The U.S. officials said intelligence "indicates terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation" by "smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items." The officials declined to provide specific information on the threat or why these airports were selected.

This policy is the last of the insane policies adopted by some of the western countries to supposedly lessen the threat from perceived terrorism from Muslim majority countries. Forgotten in this context is -- common sense. It does not take an Einstein to realize that if a terrorist were to attack (including blowing himself up) to cause maximum casualty, places like airports (esp. around the security checks), train stations and malls are easy venues for them.

And what makes the European airports more secure than those airports in the Muslim world? Did not Ata, one of the 9/11 event makers, come from Germany?

The latest ban on laptops raised some concerns. Naureen Shah, senior director of campaigns at Amnesty International USA, said the ban for flights from majority-Muslim countries “could be yet more bigotry disguised as policy.”

“This could be the latest in what looks set to be a long line of discriminatory measures deployed by the Trump administration against Muslims around the world,” Shah said. “Muslims are once again left in the dark as the U.S administration piles up bans and restrictions against them.”

The British ban applies to any device, including smartphones, larger than 16cm (6.3in) long, 9.3cm (3.7in) wide or 1.5cm (0.6in) deep. However, most phones will be smaller than the limit.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged the US and UK to lift the bans as soon as possible.

A twitter remark by Slate directly called out the president, “Trump’s misguided, xenophobic laptop ban is a middle finger to business travelers.”

Aviation experts say the ban could hit airline profits as risks include a fall in passenger numbers, decreasing customer satisfaction and higher costs linked to screening baggage.

If there are concerns about laptops on board being used as explosives, they said, those same risks could exist in checked baggage. Furthermore, many smartphones, which are not banned, have the same capabilities as larger devices.

“It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” said Nicholas Weaver, researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold. If you’re worried about hacking, a [smartphone] is a computer.”

Bruce Schneier, a US security technologist, said the US rules constituted an onerous travel restriction. “From a technological perspective, nothing has changed between the last dozen years and today,” he said. “That is, there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today.

“And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.”

Paul Schwartz, professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school, noted that the 9/11 hijackers had a cell in Hamburg, Germany. “One potential problem with this approach where you single out countries is that you ignore the extent to which the terrorist threat is kind of state-less,” he said. “The terrorists have cells throughout the entire world.”

Mustafa Akyol, a senior visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, said the US ban “has something to do with Islamophobia, in the sense of bias and discrimination against all Muslims. Because instead of tracing dangerous individuals, it treats certain Muslim-majority nations as a threat to the US.

“On the other hand, it will be interesting to see how the Turkish government will respond to this decision. So far, Ankara has treated President Trump’s take on Muslims very leniently, to the level of passionately supporting Trump against American liberals. Maybe now they can wake up a bit and realize that Trump’s take on Muslims can be a real problem.”

Yesterday I was flying from Louisville. Before approaching the security gate I removed my belt and emptied out my pockets, which were scanned by the X-ray machine. And yet, I was stopped by a TSA agent after I had gone through the body scan. I don’t know if the latest travel policy had induced him to ask me if my neck was sore. It was a weird question that I never faced in all these years of my frequent flying inside the USA. When I replied that my neck was fine. He asked if he could pat my neck area. When I said, yes, he could, he asked if he could also check the inside collar of my shirt. I said, go ahead. What a wastage of people’s time!

As the latest parliament attack in London has demonstrated once again if a nihilist terrorist wants to commit his crime he need not buy an expensive airplane ticket and a laptop computer to board a flight; he can commit his evil in his own turf rather cheaply.

I wonder what those million-dollar X-ray machines are doing there inside the airports if these can’t do the intended job rightly, thus requiring rechecks by TSA agents! When would the imprudent officers in the TSA realize that they are simply wasting time of every passenger, let alone wasting the tax-payers’ money with such useless checks?

Just consider the fact that because of the lengthy security checks at the airports most air travelers waste at least an extra hour. Most of the commuters on weekdays travel for business reasons who earn no less than $50 per hour.

Per the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (http://www.transtats.bts.gov/), a total of 631,939,829 passengers boarded domestic flights in the United States in the year 2010. This averages to 1.73 million passengers flying per day. I am sure this figure is much higher today. It can be safely said that the business commuters waste a minimum of a million hours every day because of the security checks, costing the USA at least $50 million daily. Thus, billions of dollars are wasted annually inside the USA for such long security checks.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing when it makes no sense. What is required from the Homeland Security Agency is to rethink their failed policy rather than going paranoid and making everyone’s life miserable.

Would sanity set in when it seems so short in supply in Trump’s America?

- Asian Tribune -

Letter From America: Travel Paranoia
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