A Pointed Reminder for Security Screeners

Pertap Singh, left, attends a news conference at the National Gurdwara in Northwest Washington, where the new poster was unveiled by Homeland Security officials and a Sikh group. A kirpan can be seen worn by the priest, Surinder Singh, standing next to him.
Pertap Singh, left, attends a news conference at the National Gurdwara in Northwest Washington, where the new poster was unveiled by Homeland Security officials and a Sikh group. A kirpan can be seen worn by the priest, Surinder Singh, standing next to him. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Feel frustrated when a jangling bracelet or pocket full of coins sets off security screeners as you make your way into a government building? Consider the Sikhs, whose religion requires them to always wear a dagger.

The centuries-old requirement has collided with beefed-up, post-Sept. 11 rules that no longer allow people to leave legal weapons and other banned items with security guards working in such buildings as courthouses and federal offices. In two dozen cases in the past two years, Sikhs have been arrested, threatened with arrest or harassed in disputes with guards over the ceremonial kirpan, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In an effort to bridge the culture-security gap, the Homeland Security Department and the Sikh legal group yesterday unveiled a poster meant to help screeners through these interactions. The poster, which will be distributed to federal facilities across the country, shows photos of different kirpans, ranging from a symbolic necklace some women wear to the more common three- to six-inch daggers, as well as full-on swords. Sikhs often wear them under their clothing, bound to them by a cloth body holster.

The kirpan, one of five items baptized Sikhs are required to wear, is meant as a reminder of the duty to uphold justice. The others are reminders of other things: the kesh, or Sikhs' uncut hair, to live as God created you; kanga, a wooden comb, to remain neat; kara, a bracelet, to do good deeds; and kachera, or large underwear, to remain chaste and faithful sexually.

"These articles are a constant reminder to me of what my duties are," said Manjit Singh, co-founder and chairman of the legal fund.

Although Sikhs still can't take the wooden- or steel-handled knives -- which sometimes have blunted tips -- into government buildings, the poster tells security workers how to navigate the situation.

"Respectfully ask if a Sikh is carrying a kirpan. If so, request to inspect the kirpan," the poster reads. "If a kirpan must be confiscated, explain the reason(s) why and handle the kirpan with respect and care."

Sikhs are accustomed to packing their kirpan in their luggage when they fly. They also went through a similar education campaign after Sept. 11 about the turbans Sikh men are required to wear. Turbans are often made of 20 feet of fabric, and taking them off and putting them on are elaborate processes.

"For Sikh Americans, this is a huge and significant accomplishment," Singh said of the poster, which tells screeners to "show respect to all variations of faith."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company