Joining an Exclusive Club

So your friendly Commodore now seems to be on the terrorist watch list for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I was flying to Utah for a conference where I was to be speaking about the GSAVE/GWOT. (Bush, by the way, had officially backtracked on the terminology the day before my flight). As usual, I had not yet prepared my comments for the conference, so I planned to do some work on the plane. I got in my seat, whipped out pen, paper, and some reading material, including articles from this document, which was published by the U.S. Air Force, and attempted to bury myself in my work. Not being particularly fond of flying, this is my normal M.O. on planes -- find something to read and ignore everything else until the plane lands.

Sitting in the very last 2-seat row in the aisle seat with a rather large neighbor in the window seat was not the most comfortable experience, but little did I know it was about to get far more uncomfortable. Suddenly, the other passenger excused himself, grabbed his carry on and ran to the front of the plane. I really didn't think much of it. He came back, sat back down, and soon the flight attendant started walking back to my seat. She was a blonde with a nice smile, and she was looking right at me as she made her way to the back. I shot back a smile and went back to my reading; I was in no mood to be flirty and even though she smiled I didn't think an invitation to the Mile High Club was in the works. Besides, the plane hadn't even taken off yet.

She proceeded to sit in the aisle right next to me. She leaned over slowly and asked suddenly, "Why are you reading that?" I was a little stunned, and I was in no mood for conversation. "Are you doing a report?" she continued. "Well, yes, sort of. I'm going to a conference where I will be doing a presentation, and I am working on my presentation," I replied. "What's the presentation about?" This was more than a little nosy, but it finally started to dawn on me that this was not flirtation but interrogation. I can be a little slow like that sometimes. I doubted she was a regular reader of shockandblog, so I didn't think explaining that there had been a shift in the branding of the GWOT to GSAVE and then back again and that I was interested in the implications of that shift would really help. So I simply replied, "terrorism." She replied, "Well, it's really weird to be reading that on a plane." I couldn't believe this. I giggled nervously. "I'm just working," I said. "I know this stuff is depressing, but this is what I've been researching for the past few years, so it doesn't really bother me that way."

I went back to my work, trying not to notice her sitting there reading over my shoulder. Meanwhile, the plane sat on the tarmac. At least fifteen minutes passed. My mind began to drift a bit... I thought, this is because I'm Muslim, isn't it? Then I remembered something - I'm Jewish! Eventually, the plane took off, and I stopped worrying about this and continued my work. I assumed that the flight crew was now satisfied that I was not a terrorist, reading up on terrorism right before a hijacking. But within a few minutes of takeoff, another flight attendant came up to me, more aggressively, and said "I don't mean to be confrontational, Sir, but your reading material is inappropriate. It is making other passengers nervous." I was aghast. Was this a joke? I looked around, and the only passenger I could see was the large man in the aisle seat next to me. Surely this burly fellow wasn't scared of me? I looked him in the eye and asked, "is this bothering you?" "Yes," he replied, "it is." I was in disbelief but I apologized, putting away my work, feeling like I had stepped into the Twilight Zone.

By way of explanation, he added, "I have two sons in the Marines." I was confused about what this had to do with anything. I was reading a document published by the Air Force; was it an interservice rivalry thing? I tried to explain as politely as I could that I was on the side of his children, but he just put on his sunglasses and looked out the window, ignoring me. I looked across the aisle and noticed another passenger reading the day's paper announcing 14 Marines killed in Iraq. What was it about my 2-year old USAF analysis that was more threatening than the day's headline?

I resisted the temptation to pick up the in-flight magazine and ask, "is it OK if I read about shopping?" -- I kept my mouth shut and looked straight ahead. I started to worry that I was going to be picked up in Salt Lake City and interrogated for real. While I was not worried about being able to prove that I had legitimate business reading this material, I really did not look forward to the hassle.

I thought carefully about the items in my checked baggage, and while I was pretty sure I didn't have any of these items, I knew I would have a difficult time explaining the two joints stashed away. After that came to mind I pretty much spent the rest of the flight in fear that I would be spending the night in jail. When the plane landed and nobody approached me I breathed a sigh of relief, and when I got to my luggage I was pleased to find the two joints. I promptly lit one of them as soon as I was away from the airport. It wasn't until later that I found the TSA search tag (indicating checked baggage has been searched by hand, usually because there is a perceived security risk). On my flight back my one bag was open, and the conference proceedings had been removed. I didn't get a TSA notice at all the second time. Is this the kind of luggage handling I will have to expect from now on? Needless to say, I won't be bringing any more joints along on any plane flights any time soon.

I know I'm not the first person added to the terrorist watch list, but I may be the first one added simply for reading a book published by the U.S. military.