The first sign of trouble came at the San Francisco International Airport on the morning of Oct. 23, when Arshad Chowdhury was returning to school in Pittsburgh from a trip to the West Coast.
The 26-year-old business administration student at Carnegie Mellon University was waiting to catch Northwest Airlines Flight 342 to Pittsburgh when an announcement summoned him to the airline desk.
At first Chowdhury, a U.S. citizen who was born in America after his parents migrated from Bangladesh, did not imagine there could be possibly be any problem.
Chowdhury suspected there must have been a mix up with the ticket. But an airline official informed him that he could not board the plane because his name had a "phonetic similarity" to one on a government watch-list.
"I didn't know what he meant," recalls the MBA student whose last name is a common South Asian surname. "But I was very cooperative, since obviously there was a mistake."
Within minutes, he was surrounded by police and FBI agents in full view of an increasingly suspicious group of passengers and although the FBI subsequently cleared him, Northwest airline officials refused to let him board the flight.
He finally got to Pittsburgh on a US Airways flight, but it was not the end of his unfortunate tryst with airport security.
In November, when he was flying home to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, he was summoned again. Apparently Northwest Airlines had put a "block" on his name, a revelation that sent shivers down his spine.
"How would you feel if your name was on a terrorist watch-list?" he asks. "I don't know how far the information spread. It might have prevented me from renting a car ... or heaven forbid if there was another terrorist attack while I was on the list."
Although the block has since been rectified, Chowdhury is one of five claims made in lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union accusing four airlines of unfairly kicking Middle Eastern-looking men off their flights.
"Flying while Arab" — a post 9/11 alteration of the phrase "driving while black," which refers to racial profiling complaints against the police for targeting black motorists — has in recent months sent civil and immigration rights groups on the offensive even as the authorities announce new measures to beef up homeland security.
Exactly a year after the attacks on America, the Justice Department will implement a new program to fingerprint and photograph more than 100,000 U.S. visa holders every year posing an "elevated national security concern."
Announcing the plan on Monday, Justice Department officials said there would be a 20-day testing period at several unnamed ports of entry beginning on Sept. 11, and all remaining entry ports would implement the new system on Oct. 1, 2002.
Called the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System, the program is aimed at eventually tracking "virtually all" of the 35 million foreign visitors who land in the United States each year. Justice Department officials estimate the system would be fully operational by 2005.
But until that happens, approximately 100,000 visitors from five countries would initially be tracked. These include nationals from Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya — which, along with North Korea and Cuba make up the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
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