Thursday, August 10, 2006

Terrorist In Name Only

Eiffel Tower

Suspected terrorist yellojkt in Paris.
I recently blogged about my family’s trip to Paris which we loved, but I had a very interesting encounter with the still wet behind the ears homeland security bureaucracy on the way back. We had flown Delta to Paris, and through a code-sharing arrangement, the flight back to the US was on Air France.

During the Christmas season in 2003, there was a lot of increased security based on some terrorism threats. As we toured Paris and London, the news was filled with stories of cancelled flights because of suspicious passenger manifests. These were mostly British Airways flights from London to Dulles, so we kept our fingers crossed and hoped for an uneventful return.

Just before our plane landed at Kennedy Airport in New York, the flight attendant came on the intercom and told everybody to have their passports ready as they left the plane. We were not familiar with post-9/11 (I hate that phrase, it sounds to much like “post-apocalypse”) security, but the mumbling from other passengers made us think this was not typical.

As we were de-planing, two guys inside the jetway to the terminal were looking at everyone’s passport and waving them through. As they read mine, one said to the other, “This is the one we’re looking for.” Then to me, “Please follow us.” They didn’t check anyone else after they led me away.

I asked them to let my wife and son follow us and they confusedly agreed. I was led to a small hallway just before the giant customs gateway. I sat there for about five minutes giving confused shrugs to my wife as I tried to convey that I had no idea what was going on.

An FBI agent led me to a small room not big enough for even his desk and computer. He apologized for the inconvenience and made some small talk about increased security. He asked me some very general questions about information on my passport and then said, “This is the important question: Have you ever lived in New York City?”

I replied, “I like to visit New York, but I have never lived there.” He apologized for the inconvenience and let me explain to my family that I was not going to jail. We managed to just barely catch our connecting flight to Baltimore and returned home uneventfully.

I was puzzled because nobody involved seemed aware that I was traveling with relatives of the same surname. Not to mention that my wife’s gender-ambiguous first name would also make her a likely Irish Malotov cocktail-throwing suspect. They were after me, and it was clear they had cast the net a little wide. I was not the terrorist they were looking for, but what was the use in trying to catch me and other potential suspects as we got OFF the plane?

I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later I read a story by Richard Lieby in the Washington Post about an NIH employee with a name very similar to mine that had been detained and questioned on New Years Eve because he also shared a name with an IRA terrorist. The article goes on to speculate if and how there is any connection between the IRA and al Qaeda. Obviously enough to send the FBI on wild goose chases over holiday weekends.

My clan back on the Old Sod has an unsavory reputation, but I doubt that any of them have graduated from bombing department stores to airliners. In fact I’m pretty certain the desire of Sinn Fein to disassociate themselves from Islamic fundamentalists had a quickening effect on the Irish peace process. And it is not just a few members of the Potato Diaspora that have been randomly inconvenienced, just ask Teddy.

With the British announcement this week of a foiled bombing plot, airport security has again been ratcheted back up to bright blinking crimson. I read that in London you are not allowed to bring anything on the plane other than a passport and a wallet. I hope menstruating women are allowed to tuck a few tampons into their bra strap as they turn their purses over to the complete strangers at baggage check.

At this rate we will be seriously considering Thomas Friedman’s tongue-in-cheek but prescient suggestion that all passengers be forced to fly naked. That will be when I abandon air travel together. Then the terrorists will have already won.

Also see Joel Achenbach's tales of overzealous screeners and his recent encounter with polite, professional French airport security personnel. Am I the only one to see the irony?

Blatant Comment Whoring™:
Is this just rampant paranoia or are these Orwellian/Kafkaesque security procedures justified if they can save just one life?


Anonymous said...

It's rampant paranoia, the classic "don't just stand there, do something!" reaction. It's not saving any lives to speak of, and the billions of dollars it's costing could save lives or improve the quality our lives if the money was spent more wisely.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

Yikes - If I had been led away to a private room by security guards in an airport I think I might have had only one thought..."there goes my other virginity!"

yellojkt said...

My thought was "What the HELL did they find in my suitcase?" It's not like I'm Paul McCartney on tour or anything. We bought chocolate and perfume.

Elizabeth said...

Wow! That would freak me out!
When we travled from Anchorage to Nome with our two dogs they made us take the dogs out of thier kennels so they could check out the inside (of the kennels, not the dogs) and they even checked their little stuffed animals we had with them. Now trust me, I'm the first to admit my dogs can be a pain in the ass, but their not very smart or political and come on, we were flying to NOME, not New York or Chicago or Kotzubue or anything....geeze

Mooselet said...

I'm of the opinion that a lot of people bring way to much crap onto the plane in their carry-on luggage to start with - do you really need hair gel on the plane? But having traveled in Australia and Japan, the US goes way overboard in their paranoia.

Do you suppose it's the Irish thing that always get me searched? Since 9/11 I've been flagged every flight to be screened while the rest of my family waits off to the side and giggles at me. Because a suburban housefrau of 3 like me is terrorist material.

Impetua said...

I don't know, I don't like to fly all that much because crashing is pretty awful to think about... and the thought that somebody could bring something onto the plane that could sicken or injure people (including the pilots) while we're so vulnerable makes me feel kinda icky. So I have really mixed feelings about all this.

I got uber-screened on my way back from Fairbanks once because I had a one-way ticket, having driven up there with friends who were moving back from the lower 48. It was damned inconvenient. Since when are tattooed lesbians a threat to national security?

Malnurtured Snay said...

I remember reading about the supposed connection between the IRA and Al Queda a few years ago, and quipping about nice it was to see murderous assholes putting aside their religious differences to kill as many people as possible.

JD at I Do Things said...

You handled that better than I would have. Confusion? I would have been bawling and sweating and screaming. And having a panic attack---even tho I was completely innocent. PHEW!

JD at I Do Things