I Fit the Profile
I've been through security countless times at countless places, and I pride myself on wasting the least amount of time. This requires that I be fully cooperative. I am also a private pilot, and so I can affect a pretty good "yes, sir, yes, ma'am" style of snappy camaraderie. When airport security is tightened, and everyone is being asked, "May I look into this bag, please?" I reply happily, "You bet, sir! Let me open it for you!"
On a recent Friday, I picked up my prepaid, overnight round-trip tickets 20 minutes before departure, without any check-in luggage. The ticketing agent told me that my carry-ons would be searched, and that I needed to obtain a signature from security on an attached label in order to board. I said, "Yes ma'am, no problem." I thought, "Security must be really tight today."
With no lines at security, I got through in record time. My bags got X-rayed, and my level of whatever those portals you walk through measure was determined to be under the threshold. I must be the person with the lowest metal content in the history of air travel. I do not even carry small change. (I am practical.) So I asked the security people, "What about the signature?" A supervisor appeared, quickly signed while avoiding my naively friendly gaze, and handed me to Junior, who then proceeded--methodically, if not neatly--to unpack everything I was carrying, and to toss my clothes, toiletries, etc., into a dirty bin nearby.
Then it hit me. It was not that security was especially tight: It was only me they wanted. And that "May I?" polite foreplay had gone out the window. The label my friendly hometown airline had affixed to my bags had unexpectedly made me a marked man, someone selected for some unknown special treatment. The routine was broken; the power had shifted; the violation had begun. I suddenly felt as if in the grip of a giant vise, a terrible feeling I had last experienced as a teen-ager before fleeing Communist Hungary.
When I recount this story to friends, this is where they start to smile, as if a diagnosis of my condition had suddenly become apparent. After all, if someone with post-traumatic stress disorder jumped 2 feet in the air every time a door slammed shut, good friends would be more concerned about the person's condition, not the door. In a like manner, my friends may suspect I am suffering from some Hungarian Refugee Syndrome, which makes me overly sensitive to perfectly reasonable intrusions by the state.
I try to explain: The communism I had fled was hardly traumatic or violent. One aspect of the horrible vise was the constant minor humiliations I had to suffer, such as interaction with the block warden, the party overlord of a block of houses, who had to give his assent to all matters tiny or grand, including travel. On this Friday in the United States, I was being singled out for an unusual and humiliating search. My personal goal was to fly to Los Angeles for a meeting that was important to me. If I had refused the search--cried "NO!" as it were--I assume they would have let me go home, but I would have been forbidden to board the plane and would have missed my meeting. So I did what I had done 30 years ago: I chose to be humiliated just so I could reach my goal.
I've just had my FAA physical for my pilot's license. It is a thorough search for diseases and disabilities. I knew what it would entail, why they do it, and that everybody is treated the same way. I had no problem with that.
The airport-security search took about six minutes. Junior kept up an awkward canned patter, assuring me that I would be a safer person for this and that he understood my anger. I mumbled a lie about how I was not angry with him personally. First I attempted to hang onto my dignity by being passive. However, as time stretched out, I found myself cooperating to get it over with.
I collected my clothes from the bin, my tie from the floor. I was free to go to L.A.
T he next day, I found the Note in the return-ticket envelope. Of course, it had been there from the beginning, slipped in by the ticket agent. But who reads those inserts next to the "Limitations on Baggage Liability"? The salient paragraphs from the Note:
Charles Simonyi is chief architect at Microsoft. He is profiled on the Microsoft Web site.