During forty years in public life I have been accused of being many things, but never of being a terrorist. Yet during a period from 2004 to at least late 2005 I was obviously on the federal government’s aviation watch list requiring additional screening and surveillance every time I flew. Supposedly limited to either random selection or to those on the top-secret computer generated watch list, the ‘CCCC’ designation on my boarding pass immediately alerted TSA agents -- at all our nation's airports -- to take me aside and give me and my stuff a thorough going over.
Picture the scene. “Hey Geraldo, how’s it going?” the friendly TSA officer would say upon recognizing the mustache and familiar face. Then upon seeing the damning letters on my boarding pass, with an almost physical tightening of features and a suddenly cool professional strain in the officer’s voice, “Ohh, you’ve been randomly selected for additional screening. Sir, could you step over here please?” “Sir?” What had just happened to good ole ‘Geraldo’?
It was humiliating, being closely searched in full view of the traveling public, presumably with all my other fellow passengers watching to see if the officer found any hidden drugs on me or illegal exotic pets hidden in my clothing. It was time consuming and vastly frustrating.
“How the hell can your guys waste all that time giving me the business when you know my name should not be on that stupid list?” I vented to the son of the legendary Oregon senator Mark Hatfield Jr., who headed the Office of Communications and Public Information at the Transport Security Administration. “If they’re wasting all that time on me, are they letting Usama and Atta through because they’re not on the list?!”
Even after I interviewed Hatfield on the air and complained publicly on “At Large” still the Scarlet C’s were there on the boarding pass every time I traveled. If Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been on the same list I was, the underwear bomber would never have gotten on the plane.
After countless flights, they finally fixed what Hatfield explained must have been a computer glitch, but flash forward to 2010 and this old reporter has had his left knee replaced. The contraption is made of plastic and titanium and it sets off the metal detector every time I pass through. Before I walk through the machine I explain that the alarm is about to go off, and why. It does. Then I am sent to the same isolated area I came to know during the days of the secret list for further screening. I get patted down and all of my carry-on stuff is again given a thorough examination.
It makes commercial flying, an already unpleasant experience, hell. But here’s my real beef. In typical bureaucratic over-reaction we are about to spend billions to upgrade airport security buying full-body X-ray scanners and such. Like so much having to do with the War on Terror, it will be another colossal waste of taxpayer money. How about some common sense instead? We don’t need new higher-tech machines to spot explosives being smuggled in crotches or armpits onto airplanes. We need those highly competent TSA agents who are giving me and old ladies in wheelchairs the pat-downs to instead spend their precious time and energy giving high-risk passengers that same Geraldo Treatment. It is not racial profiling to pat-down each and every adult passenger coming from a high-risk nation (like, say, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Somalia or Lebanon) or wearing flowing garments or head coverings, (which could be used to hide lethal stuff more easily than conventional garb). And yes, like so many Latinos during the height of the Drug Wars, many innocent Muslims will be inconvenienced by this move. So am I, every time I fly. Get over it.