I guess I may as well get out front of things here. I’m about to fly to Switzerland to lead a panel on how to change pro-capital punishment attitudes in a country at the Fourth Congress Against the Death Penalty, being sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva. And judging from the stories I’ve been reading about the Transportation Security Administration, or at least its Philadelphia International Airport operation, and the Philadelphia Police who backstop the TSA here, I’m afraid I’m liable to be hauled away as a suspected terrorist before I can get on my flight.
Why? Because I will be carrying copies of one of my books, which has the title “Killing Time” (It’s an investigation into the death penalty case of Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, and was published in 2003 by Common Courage Press), and more importantly, because I just got a haircut.
Ask the TSA: Terrorist or just a diligent student?
A haircut, you may well ask? Well you see, we just learned today from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the TSA last fall handcuffed, arrested and held for five hours young Nick George, a 21-year-old Pomona College student (shown above) on his way back to campus in California, because they found 200 Arab/English language flashcards on his person, and despite his protestation that he is a Middle Eastern Studies major, they decided that he must be a terrorist. The reason they stopped him in the first place, though, according to Philadelphia Police, who were called in to take him into detention, is that the TSA and police were suspicious that George’s hair was shorter than it appeared in the photo on his Pennsylvania driver’s license. “That,” as Polict Lt. Louis Liberati told the Inquirer, is “an indication sometimes that someone may have gone through a radicalization.”
Damn. Just last week, I decided that my shaggy grey locks and Santa-like beard were becoming too unruly, so I got out the old electric hair-clipper and gave myself a very short buzzcut. It hasn’t changed my politics, but I sure look radically different–and I must say that my hair and beard are shorter than they appear on either my driver’s license or my passport.
Now, if the bright bulbs on the TSA at Philly’s airport security checkpoint decide that my haircut means I look “radicalized” and need closer inspection, and if they then decide to check through my carry-on luggage, they will inevitably stumble upon the copies of my second book, which I’m bring to Geneva to sell to interested participants at the Congress. As soon as they see the title, “Killing Time,” I figure they’ll freak. And if they read the subtitle, which says, “An investigation into the death row case of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” they will see that name and immediately flash “Arab! Arab! Arab!” although of course Mumia, aka Wesley Cook, is an African American native of Philadelphia. That won’t help me, though, if the TSA cuffs me and turns me over to the tender mercies of Philly’s Finest, because Mumia Abu-Jamal is public enemy number one for the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, whose members are dedicated to ensuring this man’s execution. They will not be kindly disposed to a writer whose book argues that Abu-Jamal’s trial was a kangaroo court sham rife with racism, prosecutorial misconduct and perjured testimony, that his appeals were subverted by blatant judicial prejudice, and that he may not even have been guilty at all of the crime of killing a white police officer.
Of course, it could get worse for me. Early last month, another local student flying home from the holidays to college, 22-year-old Rebecca Solomon, had a Philadelphia Airport TSA worker, “as a joke,” slip a plastic bag of some unidentified white powder into her carry-on bag, which he was inspecting after pulling her, allegedly at random, from the security line for a special inspection. “Where did you get it?” he asked her, causing the young woman to totally freak out. At that point, after letting her sweat and telling her things would be all right if she just answered “honestly,” the TSA goon reportedly smiled and said, “just kidding.”
Holy crap! Bad enough that someone in that kind of position of authority would think of that as a joke, but what if it hadn’t been? What if it had been coke, and he’d decided to claim he actually found something that he had really planted in the bag himself? How easy it would be in this mad, terror-crazed America, to get a jury to send someone like Solomon up for 10 years on a faked drug charge (the Philly Police were caught doing just this on a wide scale in a 1990s scandal prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office)? Or, had the bag contained some explosive powder, how easy to send her packing to Guantanamo on a faked terrorism charge?
Luckily, the jerk who pulled that last stunt was fired by the TSA, but not, apparently, the guy who cuffed a young Middle Eastern Studies scholar and kept him from making his flight.
And then there’s Nadine Peligrino, a 57-year-old Baton-Rouge businesswoman and Philadelphia native, who was at the Philly airport preparing to fly home with her husband from a visit to family and friends. Back in July 2006, she was, for some unknown reason, selected for special attention by the alert agents of the TSA. As they started picking through her bag, the fastidious woman, who used to teach public speaking and semantics at Penn State and Trenton College, asked that the the TSA inspectors put on new surgical gloves. The over-enthusiastic TSA inspectors were at the time pawing through her make-up, sniffing at her lipstick and fingering her undergarments (ahead of the game there apparently, they were already looking for explosive underpants!), and she didn’t want any unwanted germs. She claims the agents got irritated at her, especially when she asked them to put her things back in the bag the way they found them. They didn’t–tossing everything together in a pile. When she stormed out of the private room where the screening had been conducted, the agents claim she hit them with her purse. She was charged with assault, was arrested by Philly police, and spent 17 hours in the can. Her case was recently tossed by a Philadelphia court because even though her attorneys had requested the security tapes of the incident from the TSA, the TSA destroyed them. The judge, Municipal Judge Thomas Gehret, didn’t take kindly to the TSA lawyer’s explanation that they allowed the routine destruction of the recording after 30 days “because most of the incident took place outside of the camera’s view” and because the city of Philadelphia “couldn’t afford” the cost of storing such records. As the judge said, “With all the stuff that is happening, I would think you’d want to keep it – you could keep that forever.” He scoffed at the TSA’s lame expense excuse, noting correctly that such digital records can fit on one DVD.
So there you have it. Cut your hair in Philadelphia and to the alert agents of the TSA and the equally alert Philadelphia Police you are a potentially radicalized terrorist. (Geez, and I already went through that garbage back in the ‘60s, when my long hair used to routinely get me harassed by police. So I guess it’s “long hair and beard = Commie” and “short hair and beard = Jihadi”). Carry language flash cards, or perhaps a book with an incindiary title, and you’re a potential terrorist. Get the wrong TSA agent, and you may even end up having some terribly incriminating substance planted in your bag. And try to prove misbehavior or worse by the TSA and they’ll casually destroy the evidence.
Ahead of this flight, I have memorized the number of the Philadelphia ACLU.
Wish me luck!
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org