Airline electronics ban is about discrimination, not security

Naviya Singla Apr 2, 2017
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Last week, I called my mother who lives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to speak to her about the electronics travel ban. The ban had been implemented by the U.S. government and restricts electronic devices larger than a smart phone on non-stop flights from 10 airports across eight Muslim-majority countries to the United States. When I told her about the ban, her response was, “well, you’re flying Emirates, so you can manage without your laptop for a couple of hours, right? You can’t possibly be that bored without your laptop.”

The electronics ban — to many people that I’ve tried to engage in this conversation with, including my mother — seems like a minor inconvenience. It seems to them something that is necessary to adhere to because “one can surely give up their laptop for a few hours for increased security.” However, to me it isn’t about the ban itself. It isn’t about the ‘inconvenience’ that passengers will face and it definitely isn’t about how to spend 20 hours on a plane. It’s about the mindset that implemented the ban — what the ban is supposed to do. It is the (perhaps subtle?) discriminatory undertones of the ban that I won’t be able to forget when I pack my bags in Dubai to come back to the U.S., thinking about the country that I will be returning to that hurt me on a personal level.

“We have reason to be concerned about attempts by terrorist groups to circumvent aviation security and terrorist groups continue to target aviation interests,” U.S. officials said in a statement to Al Jazeera, a Doha-based news broadcaster. In my opinion, these possible “attempts by terrorist groups” are not reason enough to justify an on-board electronics ban. The question here is, what makes these Middle-Eastern and North-African countries more susceptible to potential terrorist activities? Many airports in the banned list have very stringent security measures and Abu Dhabi International Airport even has passengers pass through a pre-check approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Sure, some news agencies report that the ban is in place because of an incident on a Somali plane in February of 2016 or because of intelligence reports on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which has increased activity targeting aircrafts. The fact still stands that it is hurtful to target only very specific countries based on their religious preferences, without a clear, nuanced reason that explains the ban, if it is that necessary to keep it in place.

The lack of a specific reason not only shows on the lack of thought process that went in implementing the ban, but also seems to be just a placebo to soothe those concerned by “terrorists from Muslim countries,” considering that the ban doesn’t affect carriers from airports like Paris and Brussels that have only recently been hit by devastating terrorist attacks. In that case, the fact that a placebo security measure had to be used, instead of an actual statement, is all the more alarming regarding the competence of the government in making the public trust it. Even if they do have information regarding threats to security, the security measures that they have put in place, i.e., the electronics ban, are by no means an effective way to stop a determined malicious attack — especially given that the possible electronic threat is still on board, if not in the passenger deck, then still in the cargo hold. Furthermore, this also compromises passengers’ potentially sensitive data since checked-in luggage is a liability, prone to theft, damage and loss.

An article in the Washington Post claims that these measures are to ensure the weakening of the U.S.-based airlines’ competitors, which often receive subsidies from the states that they are based in; for example, Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways. Should that be the reason, then the ban and the statements accompanying the ban are hypocritical and misleading. National security is not an excuse that should be used for an ulterior motive by any trustworthy and self-respecting government.

Again, the problem to me is not that much of an inconvenience. I would now have to either check my laptop in, or take a flight to the U.S. via Europe. It scares me that I feel unsafe in the place I come from because of all the conditioning that I have subconsciously absorbed in the U.S., and that I feel unsafe in the U.S. because of the place that I come from. But, it still hurts that I have to think about my identity, about the specific country that I come from every single time I have to step into the U.S.