Here’s the appalling experience of a retired Air Force Lt. Col, a doctor, trying to board an airplane in the USSA:
Oct. 17, 2011
Albuquerque International Sunport Security Checkpoint:
I pass a camera crew filming the ticket counter. I stop and consider telling them what I am about to do, but decide against it. They probably won’t care. Instead, I wheel my baggage to the security area.
I can feel my heart beat in my chest. I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve always said “Yes sir,” even when I didn’t agree. Even this simple act fills me with conflicting emotions.
New Mexico is far warmer than my native Pacific Northwest. I’m sweating by the time I reach the first inspection of my ID. I’m sure I already look like a terrorist. The TSA agent, perched on his stool, takes no notice. I look enough like my driver’s license and I have a valid airline ticket. He black lights my ID and lets me pass with hardly a glance.
I’ve come here to moonlight from my real job. My daughter had an operation, and I had to come up with thousands in deductible. She’s in college and, so far, I’ve managed to keep her from becoming a debt slave, like her mother. I took eight extra weekends of work in the Land of Enchantment to cover the cost. I’m lucky, I guess, I can do that. Others, with fewer job opportunities, have no choice but to go bankrupt.
My heart kicks it up another notch when I get to the conveyor belt. Shouldn’t have had that coffee this morning but thank God I didn’t eat anything, or I’d be hugging the trash can right now.
Come on, I tell myself, what are they going to do? Confiscate your toothpaste? Say something mean to you? So what. Relax. You can do this. You should do this. You have to do this.
I take off my shoes and strip my backpack of computer and the baggie of incidentals. I stand in line while my armpits grow embarrassingly moist and I feel my heart race. I think, Get a hold of yourself. You’re being a drama queen.
When it is my turn, I decline to go through the monitor that scans under your clothes, as I always do. The TSA agent starts his spiel about how safe it is. I’ve done my research. His statements are questionable, but that is not why I am doing this. I start my own spiel.
“The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution reads: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, an particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
I’m speaking loud and clear so those around me can hear. Before I get to “unreasonable search” a man in an ill-fitting suit and a tie marches up to me. He tells me I was disrupting his operation. I have no idea what his position is. He stands in front of the metal detector–the first place they usually screen me. He tells me I am holding up the line. I drop my voice and tell him to go ahead and screen me. I’ll take the pat down. But that’s not what he wants. He wants me to shut up. I continue reading the Fourth Amendment.
He asks me to go with him to some undisclosed location to “talk”. He indicates with his hand somewhere back toward ticketing, away from being screened. I decline. He tries to gently guide me with a hand on my elbow, like we’re on a date, pushing me back up the line. I stand firm. I want to go forward, let them pat me down while I read the Fourth Amendment to my fellow citizens.
He asks me what airline I’m on. I have seen no badge or ID. I ask him if he has a warrant for the information. He looks at me dumbfounded. He sees the United boarding pass in my hand. He tells me he won’t allow me to fly. I have no idea if he has that sort of authority.
I say as loudly and clearly as I can, “I am being told I can not fly for reading you the Fourth Amendment.”
He says, “If you keep this up I’ll call the police.”
I say as loud as I can, “You are going to arrest me for reading the Constitution?”
“You are disrupting the screening process, and yes we will arrest you.”
Again, I say I will be screened but not by the machine. They make no effort to walk me through the metal detector or find a female officer to frisk me. He tries again to walk me out of the area. I stand my ground and read the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
The police do come, two of them. A young man and a grizzled officer with a road map of wrinkles lining his face. The young man stands in front of me and now I am terrified. They aren’t just going to take my toothpaste. Why didn’t I ask the camera crew to come–take the chance of getting the brush off? They might not do this, if there was a camera. Do I have the will to continue? I hear his voice asking for my name over the thudding of my heart in my ears. Do I have to give it to him? I’m not sure.
I look behind him to the startled mass of silent passengers. “If you have a cell phone camera, this would make good You Tube footage.” It is an act of desperation, and I don’t see anyone reach for their phone.
They jack hammer questions at me, name, where am I from, phone number, etc. I lose track, I can’t tell which questions I am obligated to answer and which I’m not. I concentrate on the officer in front of me. I think I know what the police can and can’t do. He asks me my name, again, and I ask “Do you have a warrant or am I under arrest?”
He sees the license and plane ticket still in my hand and tries to take them. I pull them back. “Do you have a warrant to remove those?” He lets them go.
Guy with a Tie tells the cops I won’t be flying. The police try to push me out of the area. I stand my ground.
“You are giving up your Constitutional rights for something that only has a 1 in 25 million chance of happening. Fifty times less than death by lightening or being struck by an asteroid.” I call to the herd of passengers. They stare at me dazed.
The cops push me with more aggression and tell me that if I don’t quit, I will be arrested.
I yell, “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘those who would give up their liberty for their security deserve neither.’”
They physically push me out of the security area. I try to dig in my heels and resist, but my stocking feet slide over the tile floor.
I shout, “When you allow the Bill of Rights to be violated, you deprive your children of the government your parents gave you. That is neither reasonable or responsible.”
They stop pushing me at the end of the security check point and I regain my footing.
The old goat of a cop shoves me. “Get the hell out of here!” he yells, “Go on, stop causin’ trouble.”
I am in my stocking feet, with no cell phone, wallet or back pack. I stare at his snaring face and I can’t. I just can’t walk away. In for a penny, in for a pound. I sit down.
Instantly, my right hand is yanked behind my back and the cuffs are snapped on so tight they cut my skin. I grit my teeth, bite my tongue and let them have the left hand as well. He yanks the ID and boarding pass out of my hand. He pulls me up before he tells me to stand, but I scramble to my feet so I won’t be resisting arrest. I walk where I am directed. At the first people I pass, I shout, “I am being arrested for reading the Constitution of the United States.”
Old Goat lifts my hands up so high it hurts.
I continue to yell. People walking to the gate stare wide-eyed, but no one stops. In my hometown of Arcata, someone would have whipped out a cell phone and filmed it for You Tube, or at least “Shame!”ed the police for this act of cruelty.
A shout comes from behind me, “You are not being arrested.”
I switch to,” I am being battered for reading the Constitution of the United States.”
Old Goat pushes my hands up to the level of my shoulder blades, forcing me to walk bent over. I grunt with the pain but I won’t give in to him.
“I am being battered for reading the Constitution of the United States, and when I tell you that he hurts me more.”
Now my hands are over my head and it’s hard to breathe. My eyes water, but I will not cry. My voice is high pitched with the strain of it. I have to pause to pant between my word, but I’m all-in.
“I…pant…am being battered…pant…for reading the Constitution…pant…and when I tell you that…pant…he hurts me more.”
I am actually glad when we reach the holding cell. They throw me inside and slam the door with all the drama of any cop show.
The cell is clean and small, secured with a security door you would put on the front of your house. I sit on the bench at the far wall. My wrists, especially the right, are killing me. My mouth is parched and I am gasping.
Suddenly, I am filled with self-doubt. The bad machine doesn’t know it is a bad machine. I say a prayer. Have I done the wrong thing? I’ve never stood up like this before–am I a bad person?
Calm descends. No. My words were the truth. If I can’t turn to a fellow citizen and say, “Hey the TSA isn’t obeying the Constitution. They’re acting like this is a totalitarian state. What do you think?,” then it’s because I live in a totalitarian state. I have acted on the side of democracy, so I can look the next generation in the face and say, “At least I tried.”
Young cop sits at a desk outside my security door. I hear Old Goat in the adjoining room tell someone, “We arrested her for disorderly conduct.”
I yell, “That is the first time I’ve heard a charge.” I do not add that there have been no Miranda rights or “You’re under arrest.” statement. In fact, they kept insisting while I was being marched through ticketing I was not under arrest–just cuffed and brutalized.
They ignore me. Old Goat asks for a statement from Guy with a Tie.
I ask, “Can I go back and get a statement from the people who witnessed it?”
Of course, there is no response.
I turn to young cop. “How does it feel to be one of the brown shirts.”
“You can look it up later,” I say.
He says, “Did you listen to what people were saying?”
“I listened to what you told me. I responded to your questions.”
“No–to the people in the airport? They were shouting for you to shut up.”
True, one of them in the back of the line was irritated by the delay. The rest looked on wide-eyed and confused. I don’t remember anyone shouting encouragement, but it was hard concentrating on the crowd with so many men in my face.
I try a different tactic. “Didn’t you take an oath to defend the Constitution?”
“Look, we’re just trying to keep you safe.”
“The thing you are keeping me safe from, only has a 1 in 25 million chance of occurring. I’m more likely to win the lottery today.”
“Maybe you should have bought a ticket.”
I sigh and switch tactics again. “I know you have a job to do. I bet when you got into this it was to be of service. But how do you feel about what you just did?”
“I followed the rules and did this by the book. You disobeyed an officer when you wouldn’t give me your license.”
“I wasn’t under arrest. You had no right to take anything from me. What if you book doesn’t follow the Constitution, the highest law in the land?”
“It’s not that big a deal. It’s for everyone’s safety. We don’t want to take the risk. You don’t have to fly you know. You give up your rights when you fly.” (Yes, he really said that.)
“You know, as well as I do, I do have to fly. I have a job, too. I got to feed by family, too. That’s just an excuse for ignoring the Constitution. What if they say you need to give up your rights in order drive a car, or board a bus. Where is your line in the sand that can’t be crossed. You know where mine is.”
He chews on his lip, turning this over in his mind.
“I know about orders. I have to follow rules, too,” I continue. “Would it surprise you to know I was in the Air Force once?”
He looks me in the face, really seeing me for the first time. “Yes, actually, it would.”
“Twenty years. I’m a retired Lieutenant Colonel.”
“How are those cuffs? Are they too tight?”
“They’re a bit snug,” I smile at him, “I wouldn’t mind them a little looser.”
He unlocks the door, and I turn my back so he can loosen the cuffs but he takes them off. He asks over my shoulder, “Are you thirsty? Would you like some water?”
I turn rubbing my protesting right wrist. There is a half inch dent in my skin outlining the cuff. “I’d love some water.”
He brings a cold bottle and shuts the door. I’m grateful when the chill of the water hits my hot throat. I down half the bottle before I even realize it.
Guy in a Tie comes to the cage door. He asks if the address on my license is correct. I confirm that it is. He asks my phone number. I ask if he is an officer of the law and does he have a warrant. He asks if I am refusing to talk to him. I ask if I am legally obligated to give him information. He asks again if I am refusing to talk to him. I tell him I am refusing to answer questions, and he leaves.
Young cop comes to the door. “What’s your name?”
I sigh and ask about a warrant.
“We have your license. That’s not why I am asking. I just wanted to know your name.”
I give him my first name–the one on the license since they already have it. “What’s you name?” I ask.
“Jared (not his real name).”
“Pleased to meet you Jared. Wish it was under better circumstances.”
He nods and smiles.
A new man comes to the door. Marty (also not a real name) has a better fitting suit than Guy with a Tie. Polite is apparently in his job description.
“If I could get you home tonight, would you like that?” They must have hired him from a pool of telephone solicitors.
“Depends on the situation.”
“But you would like that?”
“My husband would like it.”
“Well, I’m married. Making the spouse happy usually makes my life better.”
I can’t deny this, and I nod. He disappears and returns. He offers to get me on a later flight if I take a misdemeanor charge of Disorderly Conduct. I feel like I am giving in, but what can I do? I actually do have to go to work tomorrow.
He says there is the little matter of getting through airport security. I say that I never declined a physical search, it was never offered. My intent was to read the Constitution, while it was happening. He speaks to someone in the next room. I ask who he is talking to and Guy with a Tie emerges.
“You refused to talk to me.”
“No, I refused to give you personal information you were not entitled to.”
“You refused to be searched.”
“I never refused. You never offered. You only offered to remove me from the area.”
“You don’t have a right to disrupt the screening.”
“You disrupted the screening. I just read the Constitution.”
Marty intervenes. Clearly, his job is to get this resolved today. He breaks us up and I ask him, “So next week, when I have to fly again, what’s going to happen when I read the Constitution?”
I actually feel pity for the way he looks at me. I have just made his day a living hell and I really do feel sorry for him and for calling Jared a Brown Shirt.
“Let’s just get through today,” he says.
I agree to be searched and tell them I will read the Constitution in a normal voice while they do it. This is not good enough for Guy with a Tie. He says if I read the statement, I can’t pay attention to what the frisking officer tells me. You know, how she is going to put her hands here and there and use the back of her hand to check my “sensitive areas”. They tell me I need to listen to this, I kid you not, for my own safety. I say I will only read while she is not speaking. That won’t do either, because I won’t be concentrating on her instructions. Seriously, this was their rational explanation to me for continuing to violate my First and Fourth Amendment rights. I have to get home so I finally acquiesce.
Marty asks if I could be released and Jared lets me out. They give me back my shoes. Old Goat explains that I could await arraignment next Monday, or take the misdemeanor. I say I have already agreed to the misdemeanor.
“OK,” he says, “then you need to wait ’til Monday.” He leaves again.
“Wait a minute.” I call after him, “I don’t think I understood the options. Could you come back and explain them to me?” There is only silence. My heart is beating again.
“I said I was taking the misdemeanor. Did I not understand what that was?” Monday is a week away. My job and my husband will kill me.
Jared comes to the rescue. He gets Old Goat to write up the misdemeanor charge and explains I have to appear before the judge here in New Mexico. That is going to be damned inconvenient, as I live in Northern California, but I agree.
Jared and Marty walk me back to security with Guy in a Tie. Jared asks, “What did you do in the Force?”
“Same thing I do now. I’m a doctor.”
He snorts and looks at me. I know I’m not what he expected. Now, he can’t help but think about all I’ve said. Is he drawing his own line in the sand? Maybe. It took me a while, too. I got here in stages, not all at once.
They walk me to the ticket booth. Three planes and I won’t get home until midnight, but at least I am going home. Marty gives me his card and asks that I call him the next time I flying through Albuquerque. I agree. I have nothing to hide, I maintain that I have not done anything not guaranteed to me by the Constitution.
They search me and I am sore and exhausted. I am silent. They check my bags for explosives and my backpack alarms. The same pack ,with the same contents, I have had checked here multiple times with no problems, alarms today. I share this fun fact with Jared. He smiles and nods. They unpack it and examine everything but decide the 3 mm bamboo knitting needles aren’t that dangerous.
Guy with a Tie wants to know if I was born in Arcata. I ask why I should give this information. He asks for my phone number. Again I ask if I am legally obligated to give it. He says that a TSA representative will want to follow up about the incident. I’d love to talk to customer service about today. I give my number.
He dances from foot to foot and hunches his shoulder. He won’t look me in the eye for more than a microsecond.
I say, “I can tell by your body language you know more than you are telling me.”
He gives me the deer in the headlights look and says “That’s not my department.”
“What’s not your department?”
“Investigations. When they call you.”
“You mean an agent is going to call me?”
“Agent of whom, TSA or FBI.”
“What will they be investigating me for?”
The headlights are closing in on the deer. “I don’t know. That’s not my department.”
I nod, too tired to worry that part of the intimidation leveled at people who aren’t good little sheep is to be investigated by a federal agency for terrorism.
I turn to my gate. I have 5 hours.
I call my husband. “Why would you do such a thing in some damn red-neck state, where I can’t get to you?” He has for years tried to cure me of my delusion that there is some democracy left in the United States. I can hear the worry in his voice and I am sorry for putting it there. I try to reassure him that I am alright.
I find the first available electric socket and I write.
Tears finally come. People pass me by, staring, but I just put my head down and write. I open my veins and I write it all, the fear, the self doubt, the shock, the pain, the indignation.
When I am done, it is time to board. I pack my computer and stand in line, trying to come to grips with all that just happened.
I wonder what my husband will say when I get home. I wonder how I’m going to get down here for a court appearance. I wonder if they will let me fly again. I wonder what will happen if I read the Constitution next week when I have to come back. I wonder, briefly, what Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson would say, if they knew it was a sign of terrorism to recite the Bill of Rights.