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What we talk about when we talk about profiling people in airports

A cheery group of travelers, the women in Muslim head scarves, or hijab, walks through an airport. April, 2009
A cheery group of travelers, the women in Muslim head scarves, or hijab, walks through an airport. April, 2009
Photo by amrufm/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Most of the reader comments that have flooded news sites since NPR's dismissal of news analyst Juan Williams last week, following a remark he made about Muslims during an appearance on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," have been either about his comment or the network's decision to fire him.

But some people have taken Williams' remark - about becoming nervous when he got on a plane and saw people in "Muslim garb" - and provided their own opinions about the profiling of Muslims and others in airports. Some have posted comments about being profiled, others about doing the profiling. Here are a few excerpts from the past few days.

On the KPCC website under an audio clip from Friday's AirTalk program with Larry Mantle, which aired a segment Friday on the Williams incident, "Hargobind" posted:

I am so glad this topic is being discussed. I am a Sikh American, wear a turban and have a long beard. For all practical purposes I look like a Muslim, and I understand that knee jerk response. I am one of most randomly screened people in the airport, and I kind of understand it why.

I am not just hoping that people will one day understand that 99% of people wearing a turban in U.S. are not Muslims but Sikhs, but also that people who are wearing a so called Muslim garb are not choosing to define themselves as Muslims first over being American. So far I have not yet found an American garb, if there is one please do tell.

Under NPR's initial story about the dismissal (which has received more than 8,000 comments), a reader identified as Millini Skuba wrote:
I, too, am nervous around Muslims on planes, but I'm nervous around teens of any color when I'm alone in a parking lot at night. That doesn't mean I'm racist or prejudiced.

Beneath one of many stories on the Fox News website, "Spud" wrote that he agreed with Williams' remark, then added:
Whether you like it or not a lot of people feel exactly the same way while flying.

"Amusedbyitall" added his perspective to the discussion under a story on the CSB News website:
We should also be concerned about people on airplanes wearing military fatigues. Remember Timothy McVeigh? Or people with glasses. Remember the Weathermen? Or people wearing redcoats. Remember the British?

Lastly, "Seagorn" pointed out under a Huffington Post story:
All the terrorists on 9/11 went out of their way to look like typical businessmen, beards shaved. Besides, if a group of men in Muslim garb are boarding a flight, you can be sure that they are carefully screened (despite the TSA's official policy on profiling).

Which begs the question, what is the official Transportation Security Administration policy on profiling and religious or cultural attire? From a page on the agency's website titled "Religious and Cultural Needs," in the section on head coverings:
On August 4, 2007, TSA implemented revisions to its screening procedures for head coverings. TSA does not conduct ethnic or religious profiling, and employs multiple checks and balances to ensure profiling does not happen.

All members of the traveling public are permitted to wear head coverings (whether religious or not) through the security checkpoints. The new standard procedures subject all persons wearing head coverings to the possibility of additional security screening, which may include a pat-down search of the head covering.

Individuals may be referred for additional screening if the security officer cannot reasonably determine that the head area is free of a detectable threat item. If the issue cannot be resolved through a pat-down search, the individual will be offered the opportunity to remove the head covering in a private screening area.