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Monday, September 11, 2006
"How 9/11 Affects Us All" or "Why My Leg is a Threat to National Security"
So here's my obligatory 9/11 anniversary post. I think I'm going to work the pessimistic, "the world is a much different place than it was before the attacks" angle rather than shoot for schmaltz. I went the later route a few years ago after a trip to Ground Zero for the second anniversary. You may want to click on that link before reading the following.
Now let me tell you a different story.
Roughly three weeks ago I was driving to LAX for the first time ever. Things were going too smoothly. My traveling companion and I had only gotten lost once, briefly on Highway 101. Dropping our rental car off at Avis and the subsequent bus ride to the terminal were a breeze. A minor sense of impending doom hit me as we headed inside the airport. Something was sure to go wrong. We'd made it to LAX with around three hours to kill. This was all too easy.
The first SNAFU was our flight arrangements. While we'd made reservations through United our flight was actually on Alaska. No big deal. After a hike to another terminal we were in the right place with two hours left to wander around. The real hassles started at the security check point. My backpack set off an alarm in an X-ray machine. I'd forgotten about the new "no liquids" rule. A beep from the scanner kickstarted an investigation as I struggled to keep my Levi shorts from falling down. The security staff had made me take off my belt.
The guards had already pinpointed the problem: a forgotten can of Red Bull in the side pocket. I held my pants up as the can was confiscated and tossed into a crowded rubber bin with dozens of other potential security threats: Axe Body Spray, Secret deodorant, contact solution....I even spotted a bottle of Preparation H in there. That little discovery must have made the owner's day.
Once through the checkpoint I went in search of a bottle of Cortizone 10. Several days prior in the trip, a series of bright red splotches had popped up on my left leg. They weren't annoying and, up until now, didn't look too serious so I decided to ignore them. Around the time we got to the airport they began to itch like mad. The splotches had also nearly doubled in size in the prior 24 hours. A newsstand near our gate had a bottle but it was going to cost me $11. I bit the bullet, broke out my wallet but the lady working the counter reminded me: "due to heightened security, you won't be able to take this on the plane."
But would anyone search the backpack? I'd already passed through security and there was little chance it would get searched again. Even if LAX security discovered the bottle they would realize it had been purchased on site and wasn't filled with explosives or killer bees. Still, being a paranoid air-traveler living in the USA in the year 2006, I decided not to risk it, mysterious, possibly deadly rash or no mysteriously, possibly deadly rash.
I flashed back to an incident I heard about in high school. A girl in my US History class had made the mistake of trying to tease her brother on a flight bound for Hawaii. The boy was terrified at the thought of having to spend five hours over the Pacific Ocean. As he ran to the bathroom before take-off, his older sister barged in front of him and into the only vacant stall on the plane. She'd brought with her a notepad and quickly drew a comic for him before exiting.
She opened the door, expecting her brother to be waiting on the other side. Instead, the pilot was looking to take a quick leak before take-off. Her comic consisted of a series of stick figures diving out of a flaming plane. A figure representing herself was smugly coasting to land with a parachute while her stick brother was flying into the mouth of a shark doodle.
The girl was immediately escorted off the plane and grilled for, if memory serves, six hours in a tiny room down some long corridor in the bowels of PDX. The story made the Oregonian if you're curious. That was back in 1995. God knows what LAX security would do to me if I dared get caught with a bottle of anti-itch cream a week after what had gone down in Britain. Plus, we're talking about $11 whole dollars and there was no telling if the Cortizone would even stop the itch. And how would I make use of the rest of the cream while waiting for the plane? I couldn't just toss it away, not for that kind of money. $11 whole bucks! Maybe I could offer the remains to fellow travels? "Hey, there. I saw you scratching your pits. Would you like some complimentary Cortizone?" I finally decided to suffer through the pain.
So I sat at our gate, struggling to ignore the swelling mess on my leg with a copy of the Los Angeles Times, cursing those responsible for this latest infringement on my personal liberties. What were those things, I wondered. Four bright red patches on my calf. Bug bites? I again showed them to my traveling companion. I think she was the one that first suggested they might be the work of ticks.
TICKS?!! It was possible. We had gone hiking in the back country of Yellowstone a few days prior. Quick! What did we know about ticks? Were those tiny dark spots in the middle of each sore bugs gulping down my blood and excreting Lyme Disease? And wait, the NSA wouldn't let me carry Coritzone, Red Bull or even a bottle of water on the plane but they would let me board with four blood-sucking, parasitic hitchhikers of unknown origin? What if, presented with the option of munching on hundreds of other legs, the bloated bugs had jumped off me and made their way to the cockpit? Snakes on a plane? At least you can see them coming at you. But ticks? They're practically invisible.
What had this country come to? My leg was a (potential, incredibly small) national security risk but no one but us seemed to care. If I got on the plane would this make me a terrorist? Or just the ticks? Would I have to share a cell with them in Gitmo if they started trouble?
Finally, the time came to board the plane but there was a hold-up at the gate. Fifteen minutes later and two minutes before the flight was scheduled to begin speeding down the runway, we discovered the problem. Waiting past the door in the hallway leading to the plane were six National Guardsman. They were opening and searching EVERY SINGLE PASSENGER'S carry-on luggage. I was on hour two of four-plus hours of itching and worrying about the rash. I didn't need this, not with my infected leg and what I had in my bag.
Now there wasn't anything too terrible in there. No dildos or donkey porn, nothing like that, but there was plenty to earn me at least a roll of the eyes.
When it was my turn, I handed over my backpack to a young guardsman that still had pimples. He slid the zipper back all the way, opening the flap and fully exposing the contents to everyone around us. Inside he found two empty bottles of rum, a Batman comic, a copy of Rolling Stone, a toy dinosaur I'd won playing a "Knock a Witch Into a Cauldron With a Mallet" game in the Vegas Excalibur, a stuffed Ewok doll, a camera, a Nintendo DS and a Jack Sparrow action figure I'd purchased, for reasons I couldn't remember, the night before while stumbling around Downtown Disney.
Yes, this is the sort of stuff I returned to Portland with after a few weeks on the road. With the exception of the magazine and maybe the rum bottles, these were the effects of an 9-year old, not a full-grown 20-something. All things considered, I wish I had traded the toys for a string of anal beads on the Sunset Strip before pointing our rental car towards LAX. Somehow, I think it would have been less embarrassing.
The guardsman didn't say anything as he poked around in there with a metal stick. After a few seconds he snickered and caught the attention of one of his colleagues. They shared a quick "would you like at this freak's stuff?" before zipping the bag up and handing it back. "OK, you can go," he said. I wondered if my backpack would make a list of "most wacky/troubling carry-ons" on an dry-erase board back at the barracks or wherever they'd come from.
I scooped what was left of my dignity off the table and tossed it in the pouch where the Red Bull had been. Had the Guardsmen written me off as a harmless geek (correct) or something worse (wrong) that wasn't their problem? I could have tried to explain the contents of my bag or made a joke out of them but there was the warning that had aired every three minutes over the loudspeakers in the terminal:
"DUE TO HEIGHTENED SECURITY ALL BAGS MAY BE SEARCHED. PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE YOUR LUGGAGE UNATTENDED. WATCH WHAT YOU SAY AND REFRAIN FROM JOKES WHILE PASSING THROUGH SECURITY CHECKPOINTS. THERE'S A WAR ON, PEOPLE AND WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT. NOTHING'S OFF LIMITS. WE CAN PROBE YOUR CHILDREN IF WE FEEL LIKE IT. THE PRESIDENT SAID SO AND CONGRESS DOESN'T CARE. DON'T YOU WISH YOU HAD TAKEN GREYHOUND NOW? MWAHAHAHAHAHAH!"
That's not even close to being verbatim but there was a bit in there about not cracking wise at checkpoints.
But the troubling leg rash I couldn't help but itch as the guardsman searched the bag? The one that was far more dangerous to the passengers on that plane than mini-Jack Sparrow or the Nintendo DS? They didn't care about that. And remember, at the time I had no idea if they were just bug bites (which they later proved to be after talking to the good folks at Keizer Premanente) or something scary and communicable.
Make no mistake about this. These Guardsman had done nothing to protect any of us from a threat on that plane. Had we been able to sneak them past the first checkpoint, any of us could have easily snuck bomb makings onto the plane in our pockets or elsewhere, which they didn't search. The only thing the National Guard accomplished was delaying the flight and embarrassing me and who knows how many other passengers. The whole thing was a complete waste of time.
Plus, unbeknownst to me, my traveling companion had managed to sneak two bottles past security: a tiny container of Abreva and a larger one filled with suntan lotion. She had forgotten they were in her bag and no one noticed.
So long story short, in a few short hours at the airport my shorts had nearly fallen down in front of dozens of people, I'd developed a troubling leg rash but couldn't do anything about it and had been (sort of) labeled a suspected pedophile by members of the National Guard.
All in the name of national security, while the person traveling with me got on board with all of her stuff.
Some leave their hearts in San Francisco. I left my self-respect in LA. Sure, I just revealed the contents of my bag and this entire story on the internet but I did so of my own volition and semi-anonymously. I don't know if that search in LAX was random, just a few days of tax-dollar funded paranoia on the heels of the UK threat, or something soon to become the norm at your local international airport. All things considered, it looks like traveling with embarrassing souvenirs bound for my cubicle is a liberty I no longer expect to enjoy.
And this is why I'm not crying on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. I'm just pissed. Not at ol' Osama or the entirety of the Middle East, just at the people that are getting tremendous kicks, profits etc. out of keeping us all as paranoid as possible.