Sunday, August 16, 2009

Without exception.

Without getting into the merit of the case involving the detention of Shahrukh Khan at Newark airport, or the breach of protocol in the frisking of Dr. Kalam earlier at Delhi, we can treat these incidents as evidence that the screening processes followed by US are working fine, and that they are not vulnerable to distortion or discretionary interpretation by the person responsible for carrying out such checks.

After the controversy broke out over Dr Kalam’s frisking by the security staff of Continental Airlines, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a US government law enforcement agency, asserted “that the American carrier was merely following regulatory requirements that require that all passengers and their accessible property are screened for any items listed on the prohibited items list.” No apologies were offered. As an Indian, I may find this insensitive, but if I were a traveler to or out of the USA, I would derive comfort in the robustness of the security system and feel a lot safer.

Similarly, if the immigration official at the airport had the slightest of doubts over the credentials of Shahrukh, he was right in questioning him, instead of succumbing to the protests of Indian passengers in the flight, or getting overawed by the actor’s reputation in India. If it turns out to be a mistake, too bad. Far better to err on this side than the other. This is the only way Security screening can be made water-tight and free of human errors.

VIPs in India are used to breaking queues and breezing past the security gate, with their side-kicks in tow. The security staff can be seen going through the motions, but with an apologetic air.

Used to such treatment and adulation, Shahrukh has a right to feel humiliated when he is not allowed his usual breeze-past, but he should understand that this is the inconvenient side of a water-tight, discretion-proof, security system. If such a system gets diluted, sooner or later, someone with wrong intentions and armed with a fake passport, will impersonate Shahrukh and slip past security.

(If it is any consolation to Shahrukh, even Bob Dylan, the rock legend was stopped recently by a police officer on the road and asked to prove his identity. (source)).

Aircraft maintenance practices also underwent a similar change many years back. Change of parts or frequency of maintenance is not left to the discretion of the individual (Remember your Ambassador car and the roadside mechanic?). If the manuals call for replacement of a part after 5000 hours of flying, it is not open to the airline staff to examine if the part has worn out, if more life is left or can it last for another 1000 hrs, etc. When the milestone of 5000 hrs is reached, the said part has to be replaced without question. Non-compliance will be viewed as a serious violation. Safety and reliability can be ensured only through strict observance of such practices, without exceptions.


Technology said...

A great example of racial profiling.

hari said...

Raj, I think you miss the point of most Indians' outrage over these incidents, and especially the incident involving former President Kalam.

I believe it's the fact that Americans DO NOT respect our Laws when they are in India, but expect Indians to accept their Laws unquestioningly that is the problem.

Also most of us realize that our own country is not perfect and treats VIPs differently from ordinary folk - but then when a foriegn country subjects a highly respected former President who - by protocol - is exempt from security checks to the usual security, then my hackles are raised and I get the feeling that Americans do what the hell they want and don't show respect to our officials.

And you cannot deny that there is an element of racial profiling here. That adds a lot of heat to this issue.

Personally I am not as outraged by this Shah Rukh Khan incident as the other one, because clearly they insulted the former President of India in spite of knowing his identity for sure and JUST TO PROVE A POINT...

In this instance, they could surely have verified his identity and his credentials within half an hour at he most, but instead subject Khan to mild harrassment by detaining him for two hours.

Surely India has got to assert some kind of moral pressure on the US and give the hint that the next time somebody big from the US arrives here, they will be subject to strip-search or similar indignity.

Let's talk after that, dammit, whether the US really don't care if we implement the same kind of security.

Raj said...

Hari, I am afraid it’s you who, in your patriotic outrage, is missing the point. I have mentioned at the very beginning of the post that I am not getting into the merits of the incidents.

I have merely tried to argue that, from the standpoint of security, the system must not allow the individual who is in charge of carrying out the checks to use his discretion. If the system requires him to frisk all individuals before they board a commercial aircraft- as was clarified by the TSA- he must do so, without any exception. If the system requires him to seek clearer answers about a person’s intentions in entering the country and satisfy himself, he must do so, without worrying about the stature of that person.

If the system selectively targets Indians or members of a certain religion, we will have a right to cry foul. I have not seen evidence to support this belief.

If we are unhappy with the US system, by all means, let us protest in the strongest terms. If we want to institute reciprocal measures on American VIPs and travelers in India, by all means, let us do us. If they try to disrespect our system, by all means, let us put them behind bars. What’s stopping us?

Mambalam Mani said...

"If we want to institute reciprocal measures on American VIPs and travelers in India, by all means, let us do us"
Aaha. What a great day it would be. Breathless reports by NDTV, IBN and America's CNN if, say, Bill Clinton is asked to remove his trousers, err I mean his shoes for security checking.

hari said...

Raj, I'm sorry, but you cannot discuss such an issue without "getting into the merits" because that's just playing with words.

As for the Abdul Kalam incident, that was a severe breach of protocol and total lack of respect for a former Indian president. It was also a severe case of "we do it because we can" and not because of any practical security considerations.

I am outraged and it is an incident which deserves condemnation. I don't hide my feelings and rightly so. I have a strong suspicion that many of these security personnel go on a power trip because they can and because their lack of education and culture imposes no restraints on their behaviour. I think it's far more dangerous to give security personnel such power because it is open to abuse. Higher officials need to get involved.

As for the security aspect, indeed it is a concern, but security by detaining well known people after you've verified their identity and knowing they couldn't possibly be a security threat just because you want to prove a point about "not making exceptions" is stupid and diplomatically a disaster.

Raj said...

Hari, I didn't mean to play around with words. The reason I don’t want to get into an argument over whether the system was right or wrong is because each of us can view it through a different frame. With your heightened sense of patriotism, you may see a definite pattern in American behaviour that targets Indians with the intention of humiliating them. As one who holds the view that ‘patriotism’ is not a desirable trait in a globalised world, I may not see the same pattern. You may believe that VIPs must be spared the ignominy of being frisked or stopped by Customs. I may not. So, we will not have any meeting point. I can’t convince you, nor can I get convinced. So, I don’t want to go down that route.

My only assertion is that, given the system as defined, discretionary powers should not be given to personnel at check points, to dilute the screening process in any manner. Then the system will eventually collapse. The incidents proved to me that the system survived the tests and held its own. The Continental Airlines security person (I believe he was an Indian, by the way) carried out the instructions robotically. He was doing his job, without any high-handedness.

If we find evidence that former heads of states of other countries have been boarding flights of US commercial airlines, without being similarly screened, I assure you that I will join you in crying foul.

hari said...

No, you are wrong in assuming that my "heightened" patriotism is giving rise to my views. I am saying this kind of "proving we don't make exceptions" is a stupid and pointless security practice. Security should be practical, pragmatic and unobtrusive.

Actually it's the other way round currently. I am actually stating the simple fact that targetting specified individuals randomly for "special" treatment is not more effective security. It's simply showing the state of mind of these frustrated security personnel.

And no, I am not arguing with you on any point except the fact that I feel this kind of "proving that we don't make any exceptions" is pointless unless the system is entirely foolproof.

If you want that kind of security, you might as well stop the business of travelling altogether, because if every passenger has to be screened with such thoroughness, you might take weeks to board a flight.

hari said...

Also your logic about having no discretionary powers is kind of counter-intuitive. You're effectively saying that security personnel should not make any exceptions to screening and at the same time stating that they should have the power to "single out" individuals when they have any doubts.

That is discretionary powers.

Sorry, Raj, I usually like reading your blog posts and I hate arguing like this. I am very straightforward in my beliefs and if something strikes me as plain wrong, I make no bones about saying so.

Lower level security personnel and airport personnel are no angels and these kind of folk are not sensitised to cultural differences, are usually not highly educated and are not equipped to handle so much power in their hands.

Balajisblog said...

Raj - Quite a lot of heat on this blog ! I totally agree with your views Raj.

When we choose to visit the US, to raise questions on their right to implement their security rules on us is simply not on. I am sure neither APJ nor SRK went there as guests of the US Govt.

As to how we should treat them when they come over here - this country believes in " Athithi Devo Bhavah", even if Athithis choose to come by boat and land near the Taj, Mumbai.
I am sure Bill would have obliged if some security personnel in India had asked him ro remove his pants...he is known to walk around the Oval office in a similar fashion. He would only have preferred the request to come in from a lady security personnel in India.

When our own parliamentarians have been implicated in illegal passport scandals, in the eyes of a US security personnel, how many steps away is a former President of India from a "distinguished" parliamentarian ?

World over security personnel are selected on the basis of their IQ not exceeding 75. The US is no exception. Since APJ and SRK, I believe are people with above avg IQ, best is for them to keep quiet ( which I think APJ did ) and fly on.


Raj said...

Hari, how do you say that specific individuals were targeted? Every passenger on that flight that Dr Kalam took was frisked. Not only Dr Kalam. And, on a given day, several individuals are stopped at Newark airport and questioned. Not only the Khans, and certainly not only Shahrukh. I think you are trying to find a sinister plot where none exists.

Your views on the need for security to be practical and pragmatic are simply not workable. These are highly subjective and will make a mockery of the whole system. At the check point, no discretionary powers must be given. Period. To avoid high-handedness and abuse of power, a monitoring system based on surprise patrolling and random passenger opinion surveys can be put in place. Such systems are working fine in several international airports and thousands of passengers submit themselves to such security and still manage to catch their flights on time.

I suspect (and I have my tongue in cheek) that Dr Kalam chose to fly Continental rather than Air India, knowing the lax security screening in the latter! And, to his credit, he submitted to the frisking without any fuss.

On that note, let us conclude this argument, agreeing to disagree.

Balaji: The Americans would perhaps feel a lot safer and would place more trust in our security system, if they themselves are screened and frisked. Only Indians tend to feel insulted if subjected to such checks.

hari said...

"Hari, how do you say that specific individuals were targeted? Every passenger on that flight that Dr Kalam took was frisked. Not only Dr Kalam."

Yes, but my point is that Dr. Kalam was a dignitary who has been given special exemption by the Indian Governmen. Right or wrong, it's the Indian Government's protocol and that Airline deliberately and maliciously chose to ignore that protocol and thus insult Indians directly. It's a case of "we choose to do it because we can" syndrome.

And how DO you know that all passengers are subject to the same level of frisking, by the way? This is the kind of argument that can go on forever.

Please do realize that I have a strong point. I am not saying that there is a sinister plot, but saying that there is DEFINITELY racial profiling in the security screening process by US specially.

With no offense to you personally, if one cannot recognize that, you have to be deaf, dumb and blind and totally stupid. I've never personally seen or heard of a single case of a white man being subject to this kind of severe screening.

Rachna said...

I think security processes should be the same for all. It is also a fact that certain Indians are used to breeze past security checks as a perk of their celebrity status. For diplomats like former President Kalam or heads of states, the foreign airlines operating from India should be notified about protocols. I think that it is fair enough and they ought to exempt a person of the stature of Head of State from a routine frisking.

On the other hand, every actor, cricketer must not expect to be exempt of normal processes. It is stupid of SRK to cry foul over that.

It is also a fact that racial profiling does happen. With the growing paranoia about Muslims or browns, it normally does happen that people from the subcontinent or Muslims are singled out more for additional checks. It is just a fact. I don't know if I can blame them for being extra cautious.

Balajisblog said...


You and Hari either are very close friends, or are about to be close friends !

Hari - Raj is a good friend of mine - and was my boss for quite a few years. Deaf - he has been to many of my requests. Dumb - sometimes "acts" that way. Blind - maybe when he removes his specs. Totally stupid - I don't think so, but, one needs to check with his daughters !!

Ha ha - good fight anyway. Nothing like watching a good fight on a rainy afternoon in Chennai....


Raj said...

Rachna, one may not like their system, but if it is what it is,we shouldn't expect the person at the check point to be flexible with the rules. That was the crux of the argument I had with Hari.

balaji : hari and I have discussed it offline and have cooled down now.

Vaidy said...

I just wanted to add that in comparison to SRK's reaction, Mamooty was totally cool when he was detained (for 2+ hours) in JFK a month or two ago. When asked, he apparently gave the Immigration staff his web page url and after some feedback/support from Indian Consulate staff, he was released. Mamooty didn't make a big fuss and neither did any of his "fans". Its all about ego, maturity, etc. :)

ramesh said...

bah trust media to drum up the 'insult' on shah rukh khan .. we indians are so used to celebrity/politicians waltzing away as if it's their divine right, incidents like these probably remind them that they are not the boss anywhere ..

and there are a lot of prominent people there .. even old edward kennedy was troubled .. the us system is imperfect no doubt but really no cause for outrage in india ..

Raj said...

Vaidy, good to hear that. I think that anyone with a mass fan following might be seen as having the potential to foment trouble. While this cannot be a default setting, a need might be felt to ask more questions to rule out the possibility..

Ramesh, ok to be imperfect, as long as it is fair and uniformly applied.