The Muslim Laptop Ban

The last time I traveled home to the United States, I was stopped and questioned in the Paris airport by a representative of the US Embassy in France. She questioned me for nearly half an hour outside my gate. She was professional and courteous. But still, the whole thing was odd. “Have you ever traveled to Syria or Iraq?” “Do you have a Facebook account?” “Tell me about your work.” “Do you have friends or contacts from or in Syria?”

The questions don’t stop at foreign airports. Every time I go home, I am stopped, detained, and questioned by US Customs and Border Protection. When my information is printed out on the kiosks upon entry, my printout has a large “X” over it and I’m ushered into a separate line. After giving my information to the person at the desk, my passport is immediately taken away and I’m escorted to a holding area. This process can take 30 minutes. It can also take multiple hours. My name is called and I am escorted to a room for “additional screening” where a US Customs and Border Patrol agent asks me more questions. “What is life like in Jordan?” “What is your address?” “What do you mean you don’t really have an address in Jordan?” “Do you feel safe?” Do you have any Syrian friends?” “Do you travel to Israel? Why?”

The last time I was detained, I asked the agent if there was anything I could do to avoid this in the future. What if I applied for TSA pre-check or Global Entry? He laughed and said no. I was permanently flagged. This is just part of my travel routine now. I am detained. I am questioned. My bags and I go through extra screening. People who pick me up from the airport know to show up at least an hour late. I cannot book short or medium length layovers in the US when traveling from a foreign country. The US government considers me a security threat. This post will be read by them to analyze me (Hello!). That’s just the way it is now.

Today, we learned that the US government will ban “large electronic devices” on flights from certain Muslim-majority countries to the United States. My wife and I will no longer be allowed to bring our laptops, cameras, or tablets home. Medical devices and cellular phones are excluded from the ban. If we want to bring these other electronics home, we have to check them in our baggage, which will then probably be stolen by airport security or baggage services somewhere along the route.

The justification seems reasonable enough. Large electronic devices like laptop computers have been used to execute terror plots in the past. US intelligence services probably have credible information indicating that such plots are currently being planned.

But how the US government is doing this is absurd. The ban only applies to “large electronic devices” from a few countries. A person who flies from one of these countries through somewhere not listed, like in Europe or Asia, would be able to fly with a laptop on board. I travel home through Istanbul in few months, so I’m out of luck.

Not only can the ban be easily avoided through traveling to any country not listed, but it also creates new dangers of electronic devices sitting in the cargo hold in the aircraft. If your devices aren’t first stolen, multiple lithium batteries and other electronics will be stored together out of sight which creates new and difficult to address issues. Furthermore, this ban requires the cooperation and competence of foreign airport security services, which is laughable given the well-documented repeated failure of the United States own TSA to screen prohibited items. If these countries fail, flights to the US will be banned entirely. Despite the fact that numerous other countries have poor security screening measures and despite the fact that TSA is terrible at it, Muslim-majority countries are the only ones targeted. It’s almost as if there’s a pattern emerging from the Trump White House.

Perhaps we could just call this for what it seems to be given the history of US airline security: poorly thought out and possibly counter-productive security measures with little chance to prevent anything from happening with the only real cost being increased annoyance to travelers from Muslim-majority countries. If the threat was as severe as is being indicated by the United States through multiple media outlets, why not ban large electronic devices on all planes? The answer is obvious. Increased threat to US passengers is worth it as long as US, European, or Asian passengers aren’t being inconvenienced. But Muslim passengers? Who cares?

I think something more nefarious is at play that is being ignored by commentators and travelers in the United States. Security may be a publicly acceptable reason to do this, but I doubt its the only reason. There’s another very positive and direct benefit for interested parties in the United States and for the Trump Administration itself.

Over the past ten years, airline companies from Muslim-majority countries have expanded into the US market. These airlines often offer lower prices, higher quality airplanes, and better service than their US counterparts. As someone who has frequently traveled internationally between the United States and the Middle East, I can confidently say that the prices and the service are far better on Middle East airlines than US based ones. We avoid US airlines whenever possible.

This expansion has sharply cut into US airlines profits, particularly because international long-haul flights represent a large portion of their profits because they face stiff competition for domestic flights from innovative, low-cost provides like Southwest Airlines. US airline companies have claimed that Middle-East based airlines receive unfair and illegal subsidies and benefits from their own countries giving them an unfair advantage. Partnership for Open and Fair Skies, a lobbying group for American, Delta, and United Airlines, claims that such subsidies amount to $42 billion.

Partnership for Open and Fair Skies has aggressively lobbied the US government to put pressure on Middle-East countries to end this practice to restore fair competition. They have also lobbied to freeze new routes to the United States. They continue to make appeals to Donald Trump to “protect American jobs” by acting against these foreign carriers and supporting their efforts.

Middle-East carriers have rejected these accusations. But the truth is, claims from both sides are ridiculous. There is little doubt that Qatar Airways receives subsides and preferable treatment from Qatar. Emirates certainly receives assistance from UAE. But the US Airline Industry has long enjoyed a large amount of assistance from the US government including generous bankruptcy laws, repeated airline bailouts, restrictions on competition, and high legal barriers to entry which do little more than shield US airline companies. There isn’t always even an obvious nationalist angle here. The historic, long-standing airlines like Delta, US Airways, and United continue to successfully lobby against newcomers like Southwest Airlines to protect themselves from even domestic competition.

Making it more difficult and costly for passengers to fly from the Muslim-majority countries to America directly fits into the Trump Administration’s security and cultural agendas as well as the agenda of large US based airline companies to restrict competition. Given that Donald Trump promised repeatedly to help protect American jobs and American companies from “unfair” foreign competition, and given that these airline companies have aggressively lobbied the US government and Donald Trump directly, I don’t think that the recent news is all that surprising. While security measures to counter credible threats are always necessary, the public should remain skeptical when government regulations provide direct benefit to companies that have spent millions of dollars asking for special treatment.

I believe, the recent ban is nothing less than crony-capitalism being sold as security with the side benefit of discouraging Muslims to fly to the US. If these security threats were credible, “large electronic devices” would be banned from more places than just Muslim-majority countries as if they are the only place where such threats originate. I’m an American. A Texan. My family has been in the US since before American independence. I’m white, Christian, and a former pastor. I love America, even more so now that I’ve been away. I practice and preach nonviolence. My wife worked for the Bush Administration. Yet, I’m considered too dangerous to fly into the United States from any foreign country without extensive questioning and without additional screening. If I’m this dangerous, surely the laptop threat exists far beyond Muslim-majority countries. But of course, we can’t inconvenience Americans for such security procedures. Tell yourself that as I wait another few hours in a Houston interrogation room as an agent asks for my Facebook password while I calmly explain that I cant remember my randomly generated password but that its saved on my laptop currently at home in Jordan.

Adam Smith wrote, People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. Make no mistake, this isn’t the end of these type of measures, nor is it even the beginning. Donald Trump promised economic protectionism and he’s going to give it to you whether you like it or not. Like all great politicians, the laptop tax is hidden, difficult to pinpoint, benefits established interests, and costs a ton. This conveniently ends in greater difficulty in traveling to the United States, higher security fees and taxes, less competition from foreign companies, and increased fares paid by the US traveler.

So enjoy those higher prices. After all, it’s exactly what you voted for.

I checked the price of a flight home one month from today from Amman to Houston to compare prices to see how much it would cost me to bring my laptop by flying through Europe instead of the cheapest available option. The new laptop tax would cost me $221.

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