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Shah Rukh Khan's Airport Detention Goes Beyond The Garden Variety Racial Profiling

Not again!

12/08/2016 3:29 PM IST | Updated 12/08/2016 3:48 PM IST
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Yui Mok/PA Wire

Shah Rukh Khan has, once again, been pulled aside for a little extra love from US immigration.

The superstar tweeted: "I fully understand and respect security with the way the world is, but to be detained at US immigration every damn time really really sucks."

To his credit, he did not throw his weight around. He does not do the "don't-you-know-who-I-am?" chest-thumping that VIPs and not-so-VIPs are so good at. (Vijay Goel, please take note). Instead he said, on the bright side, he caught some Pokemons while waiting.

However there have been plenty of people to take offence on his behalf. Remember how Indians went after Maria Sharapova for daring to not know who Sachin Tendulkar was?

But the point of the story is not the importance of being Shah Rukh Khan.

It's not even a 'gotcha' story about the hypocrisy of all the American hand-wringing over the indignity heaped on Khizr and Ghazala Khan by Donald Trump while the same USA humiliates another Khan at the airport.

The point is that it has happened so many times to Shah Rukh Khan. This is beyond the garden variety racial profiling. If it was simply a matter of being a Khan in the immigration line, India's other superstars would also be tweeting about their immigration travails.

Perhaps Salman Khan and Aamir Khan have faced similar hassles on their travels but we have not heard about them.

But Shah Rukh Khan says it's happened to him "every damn time." And it's happened at different airports, big and small – Westchester, Newark, Toronto (en route to Los Angeles) and now LAX.

There's something else going on here. Perhaps Shah Rukh Khan matches somehow someone on some watchlist. Whatever it is, something about Shah Rukh Khan beyond just his religion, triggers an alarm bell.

And that's one of the biggest problems with airport security – its opaqueness. It's a black box. There is no way to know how you get on a no-fly list, for instance, and even if both sides know you are the wrong person, there seems to be no meaningful way to get off that list either.

The civil liberties organization the ACLU has said,"The public does not know how many people are on the 'No Fly' list, and the criteria for inclusion are so broad and vague that they inevitably ensnare innocent people engaged in First Amendment-protected speech, activity, or association. The process the government has established for people on the 'No Fly' List to challenge their blacklisting is grossly insufficient and violates the U.S. Constitution's due process guarantee."

Architect Rainah Ibrahim ended up on a no-fly list because an FBI special agent had "misunderstood" government instructions and checked the wrong box on a form. As a result, she was arrested as she tried to board a flight to Malaysia from San Francisco with her daughter. It took her nine years to clear her name. But she was lucky that at least she managed to do it.

And "60-Minutes," a television programme in 2006 interviewed a dozen individuals who had trouble getting on planes because they shared names with someone problematic. When "60 Minutes" got access to that list in 2006, it was 540 pages long.

Before 9/11, that no-fly list had 16 names instead of 44,000. And that includes some of the 9/11 hijackers who were actually dead by the time the list was put together but whose namesakes will keep paying for their sins. And that's just no-fly. There's another 75,000 who the government thinks can fly but need to be pulled aside for special screening.

In 2016, the FBI's no-fly list had grown to 81,000 names, according to The Washington Times, but fewer than 1,000 were US citizens. The TSA security list which triggers higher scrutiny, the kind Shah Rukh was subjected to, has grown to 28,000 of which 1,700 are U.S. persons.

That is why when Democrats and gun control advocates want to turn the no-fly list into a no gun-buy lists it should strike a chill in everyone's hearts. Gun control is important in the US but the faulty mysterious discriminatory no-fly list cannot be its starting point.

And if you're one of those 109,000 names on these lists, good luck getting on a plane.

There's no saying whether Shah Rukh Khan is on this list because the list is a secret. But if he is, Shah Rukh Khan, in fact, might be luckier than most on these lists who come up against a brick wall when they protest. He, at least, got a tweet from the US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma.

At least there's some advantage finally to having an Indian-American ambassador. He knows his Bollywood basics.

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