Special Attention: Conclusion

Special Attention: Conclusion April 23, 2015

The agent’s booklet contained the address of the Department of Homeland Security’s official website. After installing myself and my laptop in the apartment my mother shares with Bob, her husband, I paid the site a visit. There I learned that Homeland Security had created something called the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or DHS TRIP – “the single point of contact for individuals who want to report difficulties regarding their security screening at transportation hubs or U.S. borders.”

That sounded like a pretty good description of me, so I clicked on the link “File a complaint online.” Under the heading “Area(s) of Concern,” the next page listed 19 statements, instructing visitors: “Please check ALL the scenarios that describe your travel experience.” These ranged from the dire (“I was denied boarding”) to the trivial (“I am unable to print a boarding pass at the airport kiosk or at home”). After weighing my options, I checked the box before “I am always subjected to additional screening when going through an airport security checkpoint.” In my world, twice in one trip counts as “always.”

But after clicking the Submit button, I found myself on a new page titled “Traveler Inquiry Form,” which asked for my contact information, along with my height, weight, hair color, and eye color. Recalling that afternoon’s interrogation, I decided that if an internal security agency – a distant, well-behaved cousin to Cheka and the Tontons Macoutes – didn’t already know where I lived and what I looked like, then I’d be damned if I’d be the one to tell them.

As I sat wondering what cookies DHS’s website might have implanted, my mother came home. (I had let myself in, having received the keys from the doorman, who took my word, one gentleman to another, that I was the son of a longtime resident and not a maniac.) After I told her the story of my screenings and showed her the ominous questionnaire, she said, “Maybe it’s a test of good faith. If you give them the information they want, then they’ll know you have nothing to hide and take you off their watch list.”

I exploded. “That is total Mom logic. ‘Be a good boy. Open up to the school psychologist and he’ll get you out of that suspension’. Are we back to that now?”

“Backing away slowly” has become a cliché, but that’s exactly what my mother did, the look in her eyes assuring me that from now on I need consult nobody’s logic but my own.

I wrote to Christine Moore, the Jordan tour organizer, asking whether she could tip off Homeland Security that I belonged to a group of Christian – dig it, Christian? – bloggers who were visiting Jordan as semi-official guests. She wrote back, gently suggesting I had overestimated the clout of the Jordan Tourism Board. On the evening of my flight to Amman, I arrived at JFK’s Terminal Eight almost four hours early, ready to endure any scrutiny for the sake of fattening my travel writing portfolio.

At certain moments in my life – when interviewing for high-paying jobs, for example, or mending fences with ruffled thesis committee chairs – I’ve had to assume an abject, shit-eating attitude. Quite apart from being humiliating in its own right, it almost never gets me what I want. As usual, the mark of the potential mutineer is etched too deeply in my face for me to pass as a team player.

But this time I cringed like a champ. When an agent informed me I would be the subject of a personal screening, I said, “Yes, sir.” When a second agent, having led me into a kind of penalty box behind the X-ray machine, warned me he was going to pat me down, “including your groin and thighs,” I nodded solemnly. When he asked whether I had any sensitive areas, I dummied up, and four or five memorable lines died in utero. After some very long minutes, during which two or three agents passed my passport hand to hand like a dirty photograph, I was given leave to collect my belongings, put my shoes on, and stroll the concourse a free man.

It’s curious what can teach a person to react philosophically to indignity and inconvenience. In Jordan, every one of our hotels came equipped with an X-Ray machine and a metal detector. The metal detectors were beyond sensitive; they were downright neurotic, beeping over tiny squares of foil, which meant that nearly everyone got patted down or wanded several times a day. About an hour before we were due to board our flight home, airport security drove us away from the gate like so many sheep. On the spot, they set up a second checkpoint, only after passing through which we could slump back into our familiar seats.

But one thing they never did was separate the wheat from the chaff, the clean from the unclean. We all belonged to the same group of favored foreigners, so the hotel staffers treated us all like primitive god-kings. When their friskings turned up no suicide belts, the security guards beamed at us as they must have beamed at their own children when toilet training wrapped up successfully. It felt wonderful.

The royal treatment must have helped settle my nerves. To my surprise, the passport control agent at JFK let me into the United States as though I were a good citizen. But the next day, as I tried to enter the concourse on my way to the flight that would take me home to Phoenix, TSA snapped back into form. This time, I handled myself with some aplomb. During the pat-down, the agent ordered me, “Pull up your pants.”

An old pair of fat-boy jeans, they were sagging a little. But the agent looked about 20 years my junior, so I demanded, “Who are you, Bill Cosby?”

“No,” he said. “I just don’t want to touch your butt.”

“Tough luck, pal. Occupational hazard.”

Later, when it became apparent that he’d stashed my laptop in some dark nook and forgotten about it, I told the supervisor, “This man needs mentoring. If I’ve got to go through this, fine. But make sure to do it right.”

The supervisor, a bearded, Burl Ives-ish character, said, “I agree, sir.” I hope he lands a job at the Petra Mövenpick. He’d fit in fine.

As I was getting ready to quit the screening area, I saw a college-aged woman being led into it. In her face I spotted a lot of pique and not a little fear. We’d chatted in the check-in line, so I asked, “What are you doing here?” I didn’t actually say, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this,” but that was the general idea. She looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

“I’m an Arab,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, welcome to the club.” And I hoped she’d catch some of the breaks I’d caught.


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