The Airport Security Name Game

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Following 9/11, airports were on security lockdown. An era of arriving many hours before takeoff, in order to go through secondary and tertiary inspections, each with their own mind-boggling line, making the gate where your flight departed seem a veritable promised land. Since 9/11, I’ve noticed an evolution in airport security. Initially, the criteria for a secondary inspection (“stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, and your arms outstretched, please”) seemed to be based largely on individual security officers’ discretion. Hence my recollection of being asked to head to the line for a third security inspection after being told by the security officer that she “couldn’t handle my name.” (Still better than my brother’s experience of being pulled over by a police officer and asked, before anything else, if he was Arab.) When I asked what the criteria was for selecting passengers for further inspection, she told me there were “a lot of reasons,” and made it clear that if I kept up with this line of questioning, I may not get on my flight.

More impartial methods have since evolved. Now, your boarding ticket may be printed with an “s” indicating you have been selected for a random, more in-depth, security search. But it could be the case that airplane security has jumped from the absurdly subjective to the absurdly objective. Omar Khan, founder of an international business consultancy, today writes of his experience of being on the “master list” of those to be intensively inspected at airports. Khan writes that his highly common name (“In parts of the world, Omar Khan is as common a name as John Smith.”) keeps every Omar Khan in security checks for 2 to 3 hours. Khan notes that this kind of search is a waste of resources. U.S. immigration officials told Khan that they had to process the same people time and again because they were not allowed to use their own judgment, and there is no process to avoid the check by obtaining any paperwork in advance. Even pilots and immigration supervisors are repeatedly subject to these checks despite clearing the security checks each time they travel.

There is certainly something to be said for thoroughness when our security is at stake. But it is clearly inefficient, and indeed, dangerous, to allocate limited resources to redundant checks. Khan lays out a strategy that he discussed with immigration officials on how to avoid unnecessarily wasting their time (as well as the many Omar Khans’ time) while ensuring safety. It’s worth a read. With funding for airport security currently in jeopardy, it’s all the more crucial to find the necessary balance between redundant security objectivity, and the sometimes subjective judgment of well-trained security officials—especially since the “no fly” database of names has proven to be quite flawed due to infrequent updating. A process to enable those on the “no fly” list to obtain documentation that would enable them to be quickly cleared by security officials is just common sense, and would result in a system to better “handle” those with non-Anglo names.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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