This morning I was privileged to read the poet Amjad Nasser’s essay, “When Your Name is on the Blacklist,” describing United States Homeland Security interrogating him for two hours at London Heathrow before banning him from flying to New York to help inaugurate the Gallatin Global Writers series at New York University. Nasser was to appear at NYU on September 30th. Only one week earlier I was in New York and participated on a Nelson Mandela Panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I did contemplate, however, as I waited to board my flight from Portland to New York, whether or not I would be allowed to fly. And while in NYC, it was the urging of Seven Stories publisher, Dan Simon that convinced me to pen an account of my own minor dealings with Homeland Security.
While personally I can chuckle, the attacks of the United States government on personal liberty, both at home and abroad, are surely no laughing matter. Like Nasser, I made a rather reflective trip to the airport in Portland for a direct flight to Atlanta—the date was August 30th. While Nasser was pondering Lorca, I was anticipating the first meeting of my first grandchild. A granddaughter named Lina. After boarding early the process appeared somewhat skewed as few passengers were actually coming on the plane. A woman who worked for the airline did come aboard and she asked to view my ticket. With a sigh of relief, she explained to me that my ticket did not have a code for a further security check. Moments later,
however, a woman wearing a TSA uniform approached my seat and again asked to see my ticket. This time she had me stand-up and she wiped down both the seat and the compartment above where I had placed my carry-on bag. Finding nothing, she asked me to follow her off the plane at which point, for the first of at least a half-dozen times, I asked her “why?” The answer was always the same: “I don’t know, sir.”
As we de-boarded the plane two other women from TSA met us. We walked the gauntlet of at least one hundred and fifty passengers who were clearly impatient to board the plane. Recognizing one of the passengers, I noted “our tax dollars at work.” At that point, the three polite women became rather stiff and I again asked why they had taken me off the plane to which the initial officer replied, “I don’t know, sir.” Also waiting was a man who I can best describe as the commissar—his suit was mustard, brown and two sizes too small. He didn’t talk to me but he was clearly in charge.
The four TSA agents walked me back to the security area where my bag was re-scanned, emptied, medicine bottles emptied, re-packed and again scanned. During this time, I asked the two new women why I was pulled off the plane to which they each repeated the script: “I don’t know, sir.” A second man joined the TSA detail and his job was to thoroughly frisk me. He was rather polite and asked me whether or not I would like to be checked in a private room. Swiftly I answered that I would rather be searched in public and that is what happened. He turned up nothing as did I when I again asked why? “I don’t know, sir.”
Finally, I saw the commissar nod to the first agent I had met. She then thanked me and led me back to the plane. As we stopped at the door, I asked my proverbial question to which she answered, “I don’t know, sir.”
So in Job-like fashion I asked, “Why me?” Truth is I think that I know the answer and it corresponds to the sickness and absurdity of government surveillance in the United States—we are all fellow travelers.
In 2013, Monthly Review Books published my book Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid. One of the people who made underground runs into South Africa for the resistance wrote to tell me that I was questioned because I was now connected to Joe—rather a stretch I think. What isn’t a stretch, however, is the connection to my present work on a book tentatively titled Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, But Mostly Conversation. In the six weeks leading up to the Atlanta trip, I had been conducting phone interviews for the book. Through the kindness of Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher of The Nation, I had conversations with people like Dennis Kucinich, Tom Hayden, Victor Navasky, and John Nichols. I had also spoken with Tom Engelhardt, Clancy Sigal, Haskell Wexler, Tim Black, Prexy Nesbit, Jules Feiffer, Kathy Kelly, Jesse Lemisch, Patricia Williams, Bernardine Dohrn, and Bill Ayers.
Some of the people that I interviewed, if not all of them, have their communications monitored. My thinking is that my details appeared too often on too many of their surveillances. Unlike Nasser, I was not blacklisted but rather graylisted. And while my problems with TSA were merely an annoyance, they do point to how huge Big Brother has become—COINTELPRO ON STEROIDS is our age.
Alan Wieder is an oral historian who lives in Portland, Oregon. Since 1999 he has worked on oral histories of political resistance in apartheid South Africa. He spent over twenty years on the faculty of the University of South Carolina and has also taught at the University of Western Cape in South Africa. He is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid.