Special Attention: Part I

Special Attention: Part I April 22, 2015

On my way home from Turkey, I stopped in Kyiv — the auld sod, more or less, for the Lindenmans. I ended up spending about two hours there, all of it in Boryspil Airport, but I have a hunch a lifelong memory was made for me. Just as I’d reached the head of the line to board my flight to JFK, the gate agent took my passport, checked a list on the stand and told me to step to the right.

“You’ve been selected to undergo special screening,” he said. His superb English made me wonder whether he meant to make the screening sound like a promotional offer. Glancing down at his list, I noted that my name was the very last of 10 or 12. Unlike all but two or three of the others, which had been printed out, mine was scribbled in blue pen. Someone had added me at the last minute, unable to bear the thought of taking off without looking me over with extra care.

To the right of the boarding line was a table and a metal detector. Next to that stood a transparent chamber that, though rectangular, reminded me of the kind of bubble you might have to spend your life in if you’d been born with a dangerously compromised immune system. Behind the table were two harried-looking women in Ukraine International Airlines uniforms. One tapped a tray. “Place your laptop here,” she said.

I complied, but couldn’t resist asking, “Why am I being searched like this?”

The two women answered at the same time. “It’s random,” said one. “By order of your Transportation Security Administration Department,” said the other.

Writing the first woman’s obfuscation off as the symptom of a Soviet hangover, I asked the second why, exactly, the Department of Homeland Security had chosen me, of all the passengers, to receive this extra attention. I am guessing I became agitated because the woman ordered me to sit down and pointed to a spot behind me. Turning, I saw what must have been the Time Out chair for uncooperative passengers.

Calling on all my kindergarten training, I sat still as the agents poked through my knapsack. After a minute or so, I was allowed to take my place in the rectangular bubble. There I stood with my hands raised while something made a noise like a Dirt Devil. The more forthcoming of the two agents waved me through and allowed me to reclaim my knapsack and laptop.

“Have a good flight,” she said.

I wouldn’t call it good, exactly, but it did offer a surreal touch. My fellow passengers included at least two dozen Jews in kipot. Their presence made me think of Kafka, who, it occurred to me, had anticipated my recent unsettling experience by almost a century. Someone must have slandered Max L. because… Reaching New York took about ten and a half hours, which is a long time to reflect on The Trial.

The line through passport control flew – until my turn came. As soon as the agent swiped my passport through the laser device, he frowned. “Just wait a minute,” he told me. Flagging down another agent, he asked her, “Will you take care of this guy?”

She looked at me. I noticed she was wearing an automatic pistol. “Follow me,” she said.

The agent led me behind the passport control stations, through a door, and into what looked like the Night Court set. Behind a raised platform sat three more TSA agents in blue uniforms. In rows of plastic chairs facing them sat about 20 travelers whose expressions registered everything from indignation to deep slumber. After about 10 minutes, one of the agents called my name.

I stepped forward. “Where are you traveling from?” She asked.


“How long were you in Turkey for?”

“A year.”

“What was the purpose of your visit?”


She raised her eyebrows and waited for me to clarify. “A girl,” I said finally. “I went to meet a girl.” With a shrug and a nod, she hit a button on her keyboard. I imagined her tabbing over to a bubble marked: “LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP.”

“Any criminal convictions?”

“One, for second-degree misdemeanor trespassing, 1997.”

“Any military experience?”


“Any family in New York?”

“My mother.”

“And your father?”

This was getting awfully intimate. “Deceased,” I said. “In 2002, of natural causes.” Then I deadpanned: “And I wasn’t even in the state at the time.”

The agent gave me another one of her probing looks. “And just what,” she asked, “am I supposed to do with that information?”

“Hell if I know,” I said. “What are you doing with any of it?”

She reached behind the counter and handed me a booklet. “If you want to register a complaint, you can contact Department of Homeland Security through this web address.” Her tone was surprisingly gentle. After another couple of questions, she let me go.

Criminal history. Military experience. Turkey. On a certain level, it was starting to make sense. I had lived in Turkey from March, 2014 through March, 2015 – the very period during which ISIS had declared the Caliphate reborn and marched on Kobani. Owing to its policy of rubber-stamping visitors’ passports with 90-day tourist visas – and, reportedly, its chain of safe houses running from Istanbul to Gaziantep – Turkey had already won a reputation as the entrepot of choice for cranky Westerners who left home to enlist under the black banner. From a national security standpoint, I’d been in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

But the thought of being flagged as a potential mujahid struck a nerve. All my life, I have always had a dangerously loose grasp on what kinds of harmless behavior tend to raise red flags with the average person. As a child, I nursed grotesque facial tics. Until very recently, I might have described, say, a visit to a nudist beach to a near stranger, oblivious to the look of alarm in his (or her) eyes. Even now, walking down the street, I’ll hold long and audible conversations with myself, wagging my finger in remonstrance and throwing up both hands in exasperation.

Consequently, I’ve often found myself written off by prospective employers as a potential morale problem, by security guards as a potential threat to good order, by women as a potential pervert. But I expected more from my government. After all, my government couldn’t actually see me.

Then it occurred to me that, in one sense, the government could see me. By plugging my vitals – single, underemployed, non-homeowner, childless – into some prescient equation, they had determined that, statistically speaking, I was a lot closer to being Mahmoud Ghazi al-Arizoni than the tax attorney up the street.

It felt like insult to injury. People who have fucked up their lives to the point where they’re likely to become terrorists should be left alone in their shame, I thought. It’s only common decency. Besides, I was leaving for Jordan in two weeks. How would that affect my profile?

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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