It must have been the tie. I bought it at Lord & Taylor a decade ago, but I still love that necktie with its rosy brown and white peonies. I have always worn a tie when I travel. It is just something a gentleman of my generation did even when flying steerage. Besides, a tie keeps my neck warm at 35,000 feet.
I was passing through a very large US airport. My papers were in order. All my toiletries were in a clear, zip-lock plastic bag. I was clean, and expected to sail through airport security in a trice.
I worried a little because I was using my valid US passport as a photo ID. It was a potential tripwire at security-conscious US airports, especially a week after the 10th anniversary of 9/11. If the Transportation Security Administration – otherwise known as the TSA – examined my passport, alarm bells might sound.
French border police at Charles de Gaulle Airport once detained me for 20 minutes, scouring my passport and, I suspect, photographing me from a dozen different angles. It was understandable though. My passport has a half-dozen Lebanese airport stamps along with stamps from Afghanistan, Serbia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, not to mention visas from Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Most worrying should have been five recent Pakistani visas.
But the TSA inspector took no notice of those, ignoring all the violent places I had been. He only checked to see that my passport photo matched my face.
With but one last security checkpoint to pass through, the magnetometer, I got a bad feeling. What if my cellphone rang? The ring tone is the melodic Soviet national anthem with a chorus singing, “Oh Party of Lenin, the strength of the people, to Communism’s triumph, lead us on.” It’s a rousing tune.
If that rang, surely they might have arrested me as an American subversive. One call at the wrong moment and I was in deep borscht.
Going through US airports today is akin to the feeling you had during the cold war, passing through Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin or Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with layers of police barriers to surmount as you yearned to get on the flight to London and freedom. East German Stasi or Soviet KGB border guards glowered and intimidated you all the way.
I may have been in Chicago, but it was Moscow déjà vu. Security is the same everywhere and ever demands that one last obstacle to clear.
Walking toward the metal detector an officer suddenly redirected me to the full-body scan machine. “Put your hands over your head,” he said. My innards were bared.
Next, two uniformed TSA officers pulled me from the line and into a private room where I was solemnly told, “We’ve discovered you have an anomaly in the groin area.”
I wasn’t sure whether to pray or wait for them to call a doctor. It looked really bad, especially as one TSA inspector began pulling on rubber gloves like a proctologist.
“Do you have any implants?” he asked. Not sure what an implant was, I wanted to say, “Vice President Cheney invited me to dinner once. Mrs. Cheney served spinach. But I don’t remember any ‘implants.’ ”
“I am going to pat you six times and do a thorough body search,” he told me. After he was done, he was puzzled at having found no “anomaly.”
“Would you like me to drop my drawers?” I volunteered.
It had worked once in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. An Arab guard’s metal detector repeatedly buzzed at the metal rivets in my trousers. I was about to miss my plane. The airline crew was closing the cabin door. In impulsive inspiration I undid my trousers and began to publicly lower them. The modest Muslim security guard was so horrified he virtually threw me on the plane.
Same with this TSA man. “No, don’t take them off,” he said.
“It was the tie, wasn’t it?” I asked him. You see, your clothes always make a statement about you, and they never make a neutral statement. Someone in the TSA cadre probably didn’t like the statement my corduroy sport coat and flowered necktie made. Perhaps TSA was making its own statement: “Real Americans only travel in jeans, T-shirts, and cowboy boots or tennis shoes.”
Seven or eight years ago at the Knoxville, Tenn., airport, I was taken out of line, not because of my tie, but because of my Patek Philippe wristwatch. Then, a uniformed TSA officer had demanded to know how much it cost. He told me to take it off and said he wanted to try it on.
In Chicago, despite the TSA finding no “anomalies” or explosives in my “groin area,” I again felt mildly defiled. Plopping myself down at Gate 22, I asked the woman next to me, “Do you remember when flying used to be fun?”
In an accented reply, she said, “You just shut off your brain and go with the flow. Things have improved.” She added, “I grew up in East Germany, and they shot a lot of us when we tried to travel.”
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.