After TSA searched my 'groin area' and found no explosives, I felt mildly defiled. I may have been in Chicago, but it could have been cold-war Berlin or Moscow. I asked the woman next to me, 'Remember when flying used to be fun?'
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.