Shoe bombs, blunders and Lanka's 15-minute fame
NEW YORK The late Andy Warhol, one of America's best known pop artistes,
once remarked that everyone in this world is entitled to 15 minutes of
fame or maybe notoriety.
Sri Lanka had its share of both last week when a potential suicide bomber
on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami was initially misidentified
as a Sri Lankan national.
In the world of competitive dog-eat-dog journalism, every major television
network picked up the story and ran with it but without double-checking
The story, which was attributed to anonymous sources with the French
border police in Paris, was a publicity bonanza for Sri Lanka but for
the wrong reasons.
The result was that Sri Lanka got millions of dollars worth of unwarranted
media mileage with every network focusing on the political, economic and
cultural history of the country as a background to the breaking news story.
Suddenly, the spotlight was on Sri Lanka's newest export commodity:
Richard Reid, the 28-year-old potential suicide bomber, was accused
of trying to light plastic explosives embedded in his sneaker in an attempt
to blow up the plane.
At least one writer saw an element of humour when he said that airport
security personnel, who usually grill a passenger to find out whether or
not he has packed his own suitcase, would now fire a question that reflects
new security concerns: "Did you or did you not tie your own shoe laces?".
Ironically, one of the best known brand of high-priced sneakers carries
the rather inappropriate name for travel shoes: Air Turbulence.
But in less than 48 hours, the story of the shoe bomber took a different
turn when it was discovered that Reid, also known as Tariq Raja, was a
British national with a Jamaican mother and a British father. Sri Lanka
vanished from the radar screen after its "15 minutes of fame" in a country
pre-occupied with international terrorism.
The Sri Lanka embassy in Washington chipped in with one of the most
inane explanations when its media release said that "according to Mr. Reid's
appearance and other records with the embassy, Mr. Richard Reid, alias
Tariq Raja, is not a Sri Lankan."
As one Sri Lankan said in an email response to the media release: "This
must be the first time that any embassy had used 'appearance' as proof
And what "records" would the embassy in Washington have on Reid who
was a British national and was never identified as an expatriate living
in the US?.
Meanwhile, the threat to blow up the plane has resulted in tightened
security in all airports, with passengers being asked to remove their shoes
for scrutiny through bomb detecting machines.
The safest way to get pass airport security these days would be to walk
barefooted into an aircraft thanks to the misidentified Sri Lankan bomber.
The security is so intense that last week that American Airlines removed
a Muslim secret service agent from a flight apparently because of religious
and racial profiling.
The agent, who was part of President George W. Bush's security detail,
had the highest level of security clearance.
But he was kicked off the flight because the captain had concerns about
his identity as an Arab-American despite the fact that the agent's identification
had been checked several times by the airlines personnel and the local
police in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based
advocacy group, wrote a strong letter of protest to the chairman of American
"We are concerned that American Airlines would arbitrarily deny boarding
to a Muslim passenger, particularly someone who has one of our nation's
highest security clearances, merely because of his religion or ethnicity."
"All Americans are concerned about improving safety for the traveling
public, but religious and ethnic profiling is not the way to make flying
more secure," said CAIR's Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper.
Addressing reporters on Friday, President Bush said he was aware of
the incident and had spoken to his secret service agent in whom he had
the fullest confidence. If this was a case of racial profiling, he said,
he would be "mad as hell".
Since the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, CAIR has received
more than 160 reports of airport profiling of Muslims or those who are
perceived to be of "Middle Eastern" origin.