As she thumbed through our passports with her practiced fingers and keyed the necessary data into her computer at Miami International Airport, the pleasant, Hispanic U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer was all smiles, the perfect blend of professionalism and “Welcome Home, Cherished and Valued Citizen” hospitality.
I was looking directly at her when she came to my name and her face suddenly darkened. She knitted her brow and tapped a few more times on her keyboard, double-checking, perhaps hoping to stem the flow of bad news that was appearing on her screen. Then she gave it to me, straight between the eyes.
“I’m very sorry, sir, but I’m going to have to hold your passport. Your name is on our list as one that requires ‘extra screening.'”
I didn’t like the words “extra screening.” I thought “extra screening” was one of those things that creepy looking Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers with gloved hands doled out when the metal detector still screamed “TERRORIST” no matter how many coins and keys you emptied into the little plastic trays.
I’d heard about those full body scanners they have now, the ones that make you look like one of those anatomically-correct diagrams from the elementary sex education books your parents used to keep under lock and key and trot out for “The Talk.” I suddenly found myself fretting over the fact that I had been sitting a long time on the tarmac waiting for our gate to clear and trying to remember if I’d worn boxers or briefs that day (boxers, I hoped).
As it turned out, the rest of my party and family passed their reentry with flying red, white and blue colors. Our travel companion proceeded on toward the baggage claim area, her eyes a little wide now as she looked back at her mild-mannered optometrist friend whom she had known so well for many years–or thought she had. Eyegal and Numbers One and Three Sons could have passed through Customs as well, but they would have had to fill out another declaration, one without my name on it.
“You’ll need to stand over there against that wall until we call for you,” the Hispanic agent said. She seemed genuinely apologetic. Unlike Grumpy G-Man over at the next counter. He had apparently been required to work 2 hours overtime that evening and was letting everyone within a 100-yard radius know about it. I suspected that the TSA officers had needed someone to test the full body scan on that day and he had drawn the short straw, so to speak, and now the word was out. He just seemed like that kind of guy, one who would yell at the top of his lungs and finger the shiny, black Glock on his belt in a desperate attempt to overcompensate.
Eyegal thought that we all needed to stay together, to “look more normal.” I recalled that day when my passport came in the mail and she scolded me for not smiling more and trimming my beard before I had my picture taken. “You look like a terrorist,” she had said. Now someone else apparently thought so, too.
As I stood there, my blanched, Caucasian skin blending chameleon-like with the colorless, concrete block wall, I halfway expected someone to appear soon with a Polaroid camera and number to take my mug shot. I had always been what they call a boring “Straight Arrow,” not at all like the man in the Dos Equis commercials. But I knew I had a few blemishes on my record, and I began to review them, one by one. The most egregious was probably that time in back in ’92 when the Boss Hogg of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee (a fellow optometrist) fixed a speeding ticket of mine that I had received on my way to his office to see patients.
No, that can’t be right, I thought. Then it hit me. I had broken a few rules at Harding University, not the least of which was the time I sneaked past the Dorm Mom in Sears Hall (an all-female domicile) the day before I graduated on a daring, “snatch and grab” raid because “it was there” and so was she. That must be it, I thought. The ghost of Dr. George S. Benson, former Harding president, famed Commie hunter and guardian of Christian coed chasteness, follows you all the days of your life.
“You can’t stand against that wall,” Grumpy G-Man screamed at us. “Move along!”
I thought about that for a second. I wasn’t in cuffs and being held at gunpoint, but it occurred to me that if I “moved along” I might soon be. “We can’t ‘move along,'” I snarled at Grumpy G-Man, “she told us to stand here.” Finger that, Little Man, I thought.
The Hispanic CBP officer was getting a little nervous now. She knew from remarks that I had made earlier that I wasn’t impressed with her colleague and she seemed eager to move us along and avoid any potential trouble. She shut down her counter and walked quickly toward a tall, uniformed African-American man with salt and pepper hair, her supervisor I presumed. He walked toward us, his elevator eyes scanning me from the tip of my head to my toes. Not only was I being detained, I was being profiled to boot.
The irony was not lost on me.
He asked me a few questions while Eyegal and crew did their best to appear very “average” and “normal.” He was calm, pleasant enough, and I could tell in an instant that he was competent as he sorted through the possible scenarios in his brain and decided that I probably didn’t pose that much of a threat.
“Come with me,” he said. We walked right past another line of people who had been pulled for “extra screening” and into a large, waiting area filled with rows of cheap plastic and metal chairs, which in turn were filled with many other people who required “extra screening,” very few of whom were as white as we were or spoke fluent English like we did. It was a tad Kafkaesque, the kind of room that you could disappear into and not come out of for a long time, like hours after your connecting flight had left you and your white-bread, upper middle-class family at the gate staring into the sky and wondering what to do next.
We were told in no uncertain terms by an expressionless, 60ish female officer to take our seats and wait our turn. We were in no danger of missing our connecting flight–yet–but I made up my mind that I would wait about 15 minutes before I walked slowly up to the counter, arms held out and hands in plain view, and attempt to “pull rank.”
I suspected there wasn’t an agent or officer in that room or probably even in the airport who outranked me on the U.S Government hierarchy. I had my federal ID on me, and they had my fingerprints and clean FBI file which I was sure they could access through the “new and improved” Homeland Security computer system in a matter of seconds.
Okay, maybe minutes. If someone had remembered to feed the hamsters who drove the gears inside the server. Still, I decided to give them a chance to do their jobs and hopefully avoid a scene. That African American supervisor and his velvety-smooth, professional demeanor made me think that this could all go quickly if I just let it pan out.
My hunch was correct. About 10 minutes later, my name was called and I made my way to the counter. A pudgy, early 30-something guy who could have used a uniform one size larger greeted me. There was something about him that made me think he had a stash of comic books under the counter and every video game console known to man back home.
Turns out that hunch was correct, too. “Sir,” he said, avoiding eye contact. “Did you ever see the movie Star Wars?”
“Uh, yes,” I replied, wondering what Orwellian rabbit hole we were descending into now.
“Do you remember that scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi used that Jedi mind trick on that Storm Trooper dude who said, ‘You’re not the droids we’re looking for’?”
“Yes, I remember that scene.”
“Well, you’re not the ——- —– we’re looking for.”
“I’m relieved to hear that. Have a pleasant evening, officer.”
“And you too, sir.”
We scurried from the room quickly, past another checkpoint manned by an Asian officer who looked like he had been working so long that he was about to fall asleep, and on to baggage claim. Our traveling companion was there, relieved to see us. She had managed to find and pull all our luggage–except mine.
I finally found my suitcase, a black and red pariah, sitting askew and isolated in the middle of a vast ocean of space between two conveyor belts, an ALERT!-orange “You’ve Been Xtra-Screened” tag attached to its zipper. It looked like an exhausted, lonely traveler, far from his native land, who had been singled out for “special treatment.”
I picked it up, dusted it off, pulled out the handle and started the long walk toward our next gate. I had been detained, but ultimately redeemed. But it did make me think a little more–and still does–about citizenship and “extra screening” and whether or not we truly are, as that other hip, irreverent airline often says, “Free To Move About The Country.”