In Terror

I travelled from San Francisco to Florence and back via Paris last month for a conference. Here are some of the encounters I had with airport/airline officials.

San Francisco. I check in smoothly. I pass through security, taking my laptop out of its case to put it through the X-ray machine. The Hispanic security official is not happy and calls over a superior, who asks me to "step to one side," where the contents of my bag are scrutinised. While this is going on, I lean against the counter. The rather short Army guy (white American) next to the official checking my bag walks up to me and points at me with his automatic rifle. He tells me to "stand up." I think about asking him if he's not a little small to be in the Army but think better of it and comply.

As I am sitting at the gate, waiting to board, an Air France stewardess walks by smiling. She sees me, her face freezes, and when she gets to the desk she engages with her colleagues in some whispering and glancing over at me.

The flight is called, I pass through the gate and make my way towards the plane. The woman who is taking boarding passes sees me and asks me to "step to one side please, sit." An American security guard (surname Hassan) leads me to a booth with a curtain. I let out a short laugh and he looks at me suspiciously --- "What's funny?" I decline to go into it. I am patted down very closely and then asked to take my trousers down and again "searched." The contents of my bag are taken out and scrutinised. My manuscript notes on First Amendment theory are read page by page. Less attention is paid to my conference paper on British party funding and campaign finance law. Mr Hassan apparently satisfied, I am allowed to leave the booth. Mr. Hassan seems somewhat offended when I snatch my passport from his hand. Of the dozen people who I saw board before me, and the fifty or so who went past me while I was being searched, none was stopped. By a strange statistical coincidence, all were white.

On the ten-hour flight to Paris, the cabin staff (one a black French guy) do not make eye contact with me once, or acknowledge my various thank-yous.

Paris. Going through immigration control, I encounter no unusual treatment. Walking to the information desk, I am accosted by a security guard who stops me, asks for my passport and ticket and pats me down --- all in the middle of the concourse. The woman checking passports for my transfer to Florence looks at me, then looks at my passport, then looks at me, then looks at my passport. This amusing little game is replayed for about 15 seconds. Then she rings through to check my details. I board and have a perfectly pleasant flight. Nothing untoward happens at Florence Airport --- which is unusual as I am frequently hassled there.

Florence. Having checked in (no problem), I am having a coffee in the landside café. A female security officer asks me for my passport and boarding pass. Her male colleague is standing a metre behind her, his hand on his pistol. I hand the documents over and look away, thoroughly fatigued with all this. They are on their radios, checking out my details. The pink sheet attached to my J-1 US visa is of great interest to them. After a few minutes the man holds out my documents, smiling pleasantly. I stare at him and make no move. He looks quizzical and shakes the passport a little. I do nothing. His smile slides as the penny drops. There is a minor stand-off for a few long seconds as I refuse to take the passport from his hand. Eventually, I nod for him to put the passport on the seat next to me. He does so. Turning away, he describes me to his colleague (in Italian) as a "fucking Indian prick." Remaining in the café for another 20 minutes, I note that this dynamic duo do not ask any of the forty or so other people there for their documents.

As I pass through security before boarding for Paris, the security guard ("Hey, mister!") asks to see my passport and boarding pass. I hand them over ... For the ten minutes that I am at the gate, he does not ask anyone else for their documents, chatting instead with his mate. The flights to Paris and then San Francisco pass smoothly.

Since 11 September I have taken four domestic flights and not once have I encountered such treatment. At Richmond, Virginia, the computer beeped during my check-in and I was told that I'd been "randomly selected" for a hand search of my baggage. This was done in a perfectly friendly fashion and the woman remarked on my ties, saying: "you Europeans always dress so nice." I cannot imagine a security official in Florence or Paris using the term "European" to include me.

On another plane, from Dallas to San Francisco, I was working on my laptop, listening to some music. A few seats away to my right I saw a little blonde girl, about three years old, waving and speaking to me. I took off my headphones and realised that she was actually pointing at me and chanting: "Bad man! Bad man!" A few seconds later her mother realised what was going on and, hugely embarrassed, shifted herself between the girl and me. She said nothing to me.

--- Navrai Ghaleigh
University of California, Berkeley
The London Review of Books
15 November 2001

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