*Thanksgiving 2015 with the family was wonderful. And a couple days after the holiday, despite doomsday forecasts of a merciless ice storm baring down on Oklahoma City, my morning flight back to Los Angeles was still on the schedule monitor at Will Rogers. I’d checked my bag and was waiting in a slow moving, zig-zagging TSA security line to get to my plane’s gate.
Then he entered the line.
Slight and thin, about 5’7 and in his Late 30s, his cinnamon brown skin and dark, closely cropped hair suggested Middle Eastern or Native American origins. Together, we marked the end of a long TSA line; the two of us brought up the rear.
Apparently, he’d come to the airport in Oklahoma City’s 40 degree weather wearing but a hoodless gray North Face jacket, faded jeans and sneakers. No carry-on luggage, not even a cap.
He got my attention because he seemed nervous. Really nervous. Every time the line moved, he’d use his phone in a way that suggested he was texting. Maybe he was trying to appear preoccupied. He’d mumble to himself something I couldn’t decipher.
Most disconcerting was a random, meandering melody he kept whistling just under his breath, an innocuous version of the do-do-de-dum-dum-dee–dee thing people hum when they’re killing time.
Periodically I feigned looking to my left or right to check him out in my peripheral. Twice, I straight up turned around and just looked right at him. Either he truly didn’t notice or was really absorbed in whatever he was texting.
This wasn’t the time for his behavior. The world was still on edge from the Paris, France attacks days earlier, on November 13. People were on edge. But then, these days that’s the case a lot of the time. Terrorism has become a way of life. We concern ourselves with the mortgage, the kids, what’s going on at work, what’s for dinner and terrorism. The possibility of being a victim is real. We hypothesize certain locales being hit. A garden variety paranoia has set in.
One act of terrorism goes a long way. In an Oklahoma City Bombing, a 9/11, a Paris or a Boston or San Bernadino or a Belgium or a Pakistan attack there is the wholesale slaughter of the event itself, and then there is the fear that news of the event instills globally.
That’s the extended goal of terrorism, to frighten society into an existence of fear and suspicion, and when applicable, prejudice and bigotry–which is the ugly flame being fanned by the likes of Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and their cohorts and followers but also by people who view themselves as reasonable and compassionate. Like me.
On that day in November, I was on the lookout for something. I found it in the man standing behind me.
We reached the TSA check point, where there was a fork in the road, so to speak, with a TSA officer checking flight tickets and identification at a podium to the left, another at the podium to the right. By now I’m about to burst. Should I say something to the authorities? Having been Black all my life, I know what it’s like to be looked upon with mistrust without reason. I didn’t want to be the one behind a pointing finger.
But I also didn’t want to find myself at 35,000 feet holding my ass in terrified, breathless prayer simply because somebody koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs decided his or her “cause” called for a plane full of people to go down in a blaze of misguided, horrifying gory. Fuck that.
“That man over there is acting strange,” I said to the young TSA officer as I handed him my plane ticket and I.D.
“Where?” he asked, his query blasé by design.
“Right there,” I said, nodding my head toward my nervous nemesis, checking in with the TSA officer at the right podium. My officer gave the man a nonchalant glance. “Have a safe flight,” he said, returning my ticket and driver’s license.
Going through the screening process, I lost track of the man, but he was still on my mind. “In line, I saw somebody whose behavior troubled me,” I threw out to a 30-something couple as we put our shoes back on. They asked for details. “It’s a different world we live in today,” mused the man.
Gathering up her stuff, the woman, through empathic eyes, offered, “I hope you have a wonderful and joyous holiday season.” She said this as if a day or two later, she could easily be on cable news tearfully recanting her fateful meeting with a man in the Oklahoma City terminal who expressed concern regarding a passenger who ended up taking down a flight. Shit.
Sitting at my flight’s gate, I kept an eye out for that guy. When I boarded, I looked to make sure he wasn’t on the plane. I arrived in L.A. without incident.
During the cab ride home, I considered my thoughts at the airport in Oklahoma. I really could have started something. Had that TSA officer been as suspicious as I was,
it might have led to a shake-down of the poor man. Had he taken umbrage, it could have gotten ugly.
Who knows why he was so nervous. He could have been going through something tough: a death in the family, a romantic break-up. A health scare.
Hell, maybe I made him fidgety. My not-so-covert surveillance, bordering on harassment, could make anyone nervous. Or angry.
Once home, determined to empty my suitcase in a timely fashion after travel—-something I seldom do—-I unzipped it, opened it up and was taken by what I saw. Lying atop my clothes was a form letter from the TSA. It read: To protect you and your fellow passengers, the TSA is required by law to inspect all checked baggage. As part of this process, some bags are opened and physically inspected. Your bag was among those selected for physical inspection.
What the note should have said was: Yeah, MF, while you were busy racially profiling innocent passengers as terrorists, we thought YOUR shit looked kinda shady, too, and we decided to check YOU out. Karma’s a bitch. Have a nice day.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected].