What if the Edmonton teenager who almost boarded a plane with a pipe bomb wasn't white?
When 18-year-old Skylar Murphy went through airport security last September, he accidentally had a pipe bomb with him. Nevertheless, the Edmonton resident was allowed to catch his flight to Mexico.
Murphy was arrested upon his return to Canada and eventually fined $100. But post-9/11, that’s not such a bad deal for nearly boarding an international flight with an explosive device.
“I don’t think it would be speculation to say that if this was a racialized young man, that this person would have been treated very different,” said Harsha Walia, a Vancouver-based activist who often focuses on immigration issues.
On the phone from Alberta where she was promoting her book, Undoing Border Imperialism, Walia discussed with the Straight what might have happened had Skyler Murphy’s driver’s license read something like “Mansoor Musafir”.
Right away, Musafir would have had to forget about a week on the beach in Mexico. In Walia's scenario, upon Border Services finding the bomb in his luggage, Musafir was quickly moved to a small room and kept by himself until RCMP officers arrived and began a lengthy interrogation.
That was the start of a 72-hour period for which Musafir was held without charges, which is permitted under Canadian antiterror laws. His right to remain silent was swept aside and officers repeatedly mentioned that in the past, Canada had transferred terrorist suspects to governments rougher than theirs.
Outside the airport, authorities giddy with their easy arrest had already leaked news of Musafir’s supposed plans to the media. On televisions across North America that night, Musafir’s family was probed and photographs of relatives in Lebanon were displayed with question marks next to them. The young man’s Facebook and Twitter feeds were scrutinized for anything that could be interpreted as “radical”. By day two, Ezra Levant was debating the implications of the length of Musafir’s stubbly facial hair.
Finally released after the RCMP conceded there was a lack of evidence to charge Musafir, authorities nevertheless placed his name on a no-fly list and restricted his movement for one year, which is also allowed under Canadian law.
“Regardless of what the outcome would be, this person would be labeled a terrorist and presumed to have foreign connections,” Walia said. “I think this very clearly indicates that there is a double standard in terms of how security operates.”
Zool Suleman, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, suggested that Murphy’s case is symptomatic of racial profiling.
“There is no doubt that race plays a large element in how enforcement authorities deal and prosecute cases,” he said. “If this gentleman had been of Middle Eastern origin or a visible minority in some manner, or perhaps even from a lower socioeconomic background, I have no doubt that he would have been subjected to much more scrutiny and perhaps much more enforcement.”
Suleman questioned how the incident highlights who is perceived as a threat and what sort of person is not.
“I don’t want to speculate, but if you’re being subjected to enforcement, you’re found with a pipe bomb in your possession, and perhaps you have a Muslim background, my sense would be that there is a very low chance you would be boarding your plane,” he added.
Walia called it a case of “white privilege”.
“People with white skin are treated incredibly differently by law enforcement and different agencies connected to government,” she said.