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Waqar Ahmad, the TSA, and flying while brown in an age of fear

Waqar Ahmad took this photo, but maybe it's just another piece of the biggest, lamest plot ever.

Waqar Ahmad took this photo, but maybe it's just another piece of the biggest, lamest plot ever.

We're supposed to be feeling bad for spring breakers. This week, they were made to endure long lines to clear security at the understaffed Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

As we consider the suffering of that unfortunate class, who will spend the coming days awash in slushy drinks and bodily fluids on the beaches of Mexico and Florida, let us also spare a thought for Waqar Ahmad.

Ahmad, a 46-year-old from Minneapolis, was set to fly to Arizona a few weeks ago. That's when he noticed his boarding pass had been marked "SSSS."

As a quality control expert for a Fortune 500 company, Ahmad flies a lot for work, but he'd never seen this abbreviation. At the airport, he would learn that it stood for "Secondary Security Screening Selection." The brown-skinned man of Pakistani descent had been "randomly selected" for the honor.

When he got to security, Ahmad's line was closed and he was surrounded by TSA agents. The officers gave him a thorough pat-down, scouring his crotch, buttocks, and all points north and south.

Ahmad didn't protest. He'd been in the TSA agents' shoes before. In the early 2000s, when he lived in New York, Ahmad was an auxiliary officer for the New York Police Department. During those tense months after September 11, he voluntarily drove the streets, an extra set of eyes and ears for the cops.

As wary passengers streamed by, TSA staff reached into Ahmad's bag and pulled out his socks, underwear, and an American flag.

Ahmad, an amateur photographer, carries the flag with him as a patriotic prop to stage photos of street scenes and landscapes. He took in the faces of the TSA agents as they unfurled the flag from a suspected terrorist's bag. "I wish I had my camera," he thought.

After about 45 minutes, he was allowed to proceed.

The following Saturday, Ahmad headed to the Phoenix airport for his return to the Twin Cities.

This time, something was amiss. His laptop was passed through an X-ray machine and cleared. They still asked him to turn it on, proof the machine was operable. But Ahamd had left his charger in Minnesota, and the battery ran out during the trip.

The TSA personnel in Arizona were visibly concerned. Walkie-talkies were in use. Agents stepped away to call supervisors. They eventually determined Ahmad couldn't board his flight. He was forced to leave the airport.

Ahmad was confused. He had been judged a threat to the American people, but was now simply being set free. Please enjoy your stay in Phoenix.

He trudged off to rent a car from the same place he'd just returned one. Ahmad spent the night in the parking lot of a Phoenix Walmart.

"I've never been happier to see a Walmart opening at six o'clock in the morning," he says.

He bought a charger and headed back to the airport. This time, his laptop was determined not to be a bomb. Ahmad returned to Minnesota with a new back-up charger, an unexpectedly lighter wallet, and a story.

The person who seems most upset about the incident is his friend Scott Dibble, the Democratic state senator from Minneapolis. Dibble is outraged that his "super-normal" friend, a training partner for long-distance races, was profiled for having the wrong skin and name.

"[Ahmad] is a very smart, very thoughtful, quiet personality," Dibble says. "He's a sweet and gentle person."

The guy they wouldn't let pass through the Phoenix airport has been living in this country for almost three decades. In New York, he worked for Scholastic, publisher of the Harry Potter books. During his off hours, he wore the NYPD badge and looked for bad guys. He goes for jogs around Lake Calhoun with a gay state senator who authored the state's same-sex marriage law.

Either Waqar Ahmad is the sleepiest sleeper cell in the history of terrorism, or someone made a mistake.

While TSA is busy stopping innocents, what's frustrating is how often it fails its own internal safety tests, says Dibble. Last year, a Department of Homeland Security team was able to get "banned" items through screenings 67 times out of 70 attempts.

A spokesman for TSA admits the agency maintains a list, but the names of risky travelers are determined by the FBI, which transmits that information to its airport enforcers.

Ahmad understands. His job involves solving problems in complex and bureaucratic systems, where multiple teams work from different locations. Everyone's working hard, he says, trying to produce results that justify their budgets, their jobs. Mistakes are inevitable.

So the more important question becomes: How long does it take to fix a mistake?

He'll find out. Last week, Ahmad booked a ticket to Seattle. He will remember to bring a laptop charger this time, and says he's "super-curious" to see if he's still on the list.

TSA agents should greet him with a smile and point him to the nearest open line. He's only a threat to America if we're afraid of beautiful landscape photos featuring our flag. Or embarrassment. 

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