Is That a Vial of Nitroglycerin in Your Turban, or Are You Just a Sikh?


Some Sikhs object to a new TSA policy that allows discretionary "pat-downs" of headgear. The pat-downs, aimed at threats (such as liquid explosives) that would not trigger a metal detector, ostensibly have nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. But since the decision to feel up a passenger's hat will be left to individual screeners, many of whom may still be confusing the average bearded, turban-wearing Sikh man with Osama bin Laden, Sikhs are understandably concerned that they will be singled out for extra attention, stigmatizing them as potential jihadists and reinforcing public misconceptions. They also have religious objections to the fingering of their turbans.

If this new policy made sense as a security measure, the Sikhs' embarrassment and inconvenience might be considered (especially by non-Sikhs) an acceptable cost of protecting passengers from terrorism. But how likely is it that a terrorist would dress like a Sikh, which in the eyes of many Americans means dressing like a terrorist, so he can hide a tube of nitroglycerin in his turban? For that matter, has the TSA discovered any liquid explosives or liquid explosive components since it started focusing on this purported threat in 2006? If not, does that mean the new rules for liquids and gels are working?

Somehow I doubt it. Half the time when I travel, I forget to put my toothpaste and eyeglass cleaner in a separate "quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag," and typically no one notices. In performance tests TSA screeners routinely miss simulated guns and bombs. In this context, does adding hats to the list of items that require extra scrutiny, along with liquids, gels, shoes, laptops, tools, and sporting goods, make sense? If everything is the focus of special attention, nothing is. 

On the brighter side, the TSA finally has lifted its senseless ban on "common lighters," almost a year after Congress said it could. The TSA notes that the U.S. was "the only country in the world to ban lighters" and that screeners were confiscating some 22,000 a day from passengers (and probably missing at least as many), which distracted them from more significant threats. ("Torch lighters," the fancy kind often used with cigars, are still prohibited.) Also, mothers will no longer be forced to taste their breast milk.