Spies ‘R’ Us
Leaving New Labour’s Brave New World By Sanjoy Mahajan
ZNet Commentary October 19, 2005
For one year after America and Britain invaded Iraq, I wore an A4-sized placard with “Oiligarchy” on one side in a large red font and with a sticker of “George Bush, International Terrorist” on the other side, which also has a smaller sticker saying “Regime change starts at home”. When I wore the Bush side into the United States, the immigration agent entered notes into my US passport record and sent me to be interrogated for 45 minutes. That story is described here: .
On one trip from England to the United States (12 March 2004) I planned a follow-up experiment: Go through US immigration wearing a coat and tie but no sign. If, upon immigration scanning my passport and pulling up my record, I was asked extra questions, I would have an idea of what they had typed into my passport record on my earlier trip. Before I got there, I became part of an unplanned experiment at London Heathrow.
At Heathrow I check in, pass through security, and then wait in a long queue to enter the boarding area at the gate. Virgin Atlantic security picks most people out of line and searches their hand luggage. I packed only hand luggage, which includes the sign, which I planned to wear in New York. The security chap leafs through all my papers and sees the sign. The “Oiligarchy” side poses no problem, at least to him if not to Iraqis, but the reverse side with Bush’s picture labelled “terrorist” prompts questions about what it is, and whether I have been “out campaigning”. Eventually he lets me go to the boarding area. While in the queue to board the aircraft, another security chap taps me on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me, could we have a word with you?”
He and a colleague motion me out of line and say, “We understand you have an item in your bag. May we have a look?” I hand them the bag. They pull out and examine the sign and ask why I have it; I say it’s because of the war on Iraq. They ask me where I got the sign, and I explain that I made it. The boss tells me to wait, takes the sign and my passport, asks his underling to watch me, and leaves to chat with his boss. As most of the other passengers board, the first boss along with another one from the plane sits next to me, with their underling still watching that I don’t run away. The one from the plane says, “We fully accept that people have different views and fully support your right to free speech.” Never believe anything until it is officially denied. “But you have to understand that it is a strong opinion you are expressing.” I ask whether strong opinons are now banned on airlines. “You have to understand that it is a flight to America and terrorism is a serious threat.” I say that I know, that’s why I wear my sign: to discourage terrorism such as Bush and Blair’s. Then he says, “We’ve spoken with the captain and he’s not happy for you to board this flight, and his say is final. The next flight is full but we’ll put you on the flight after that. Is that okay?” I ask whether I have a choice; he says “Basically, no.” So I agree.
Then they say they have to confiscate my sign, because “We can’t let you board the plane with it. If it’s in your bag and you open your bag, what if someone else sees it?” One chap explains that my view “is not a common one and will offend people.” An innovative test for boarding a plane! I refuse to let them confiscate it, saying that I have worn it since America started bombing Iraq and it is therefore valuable to me. I propose that the crew carry it so that no passenger will glimpse the contraband. Not possible, I am told, because “the captain and crew will not fly knowing that someone with those opinions is on board.”
Seeing that the sign cannot go on the plane at all, I then propose that I post it to myself. They say that was okay a few months ago. However, no postboxes are on ‘airside’ (by the gates) and passengers nowadays may not return to ‘landside’ from ‘airside’; to protect security, of course. He says he’ll talk to his security manager about taking me through security. I have four hours until the new flight, so I have time.
He takes my boarding pass and passport to rebook my ticket. I hear him telephoning to his boss, saying “I’ve talked to the guy [i.e. me] and he seems fine. I am happy for him to go on the flight.” After 20 minutes more discussion, he returns and tells me, “You are not going to be happy with this. But my security manager says that our captains will not let you on board knowing that you’ve been involved in a security incident.” He adds, “I know our captains and that’s how they feel. So we’re going to endorse your ticket to another airline.” (And presumably not tell them why, otherwise I’d never get on board there either.) I ask if it means that I can never fly with Virgin Atlantic again, and he says “Very likely.” So I ask for a written statement to that effect. He says he’ll see what he can do and will talk to yet another boss. He also asks if I have any preference of which airline to go on (I don’t).
He takes my boarding pass and passport again. He returns after 15 minutes and says that the head of Virgin security wants to speak to me, so we need to go back to landside. I remind them that landside has the postboxes I was looking for. They agree, and one asks me to follow him back to landside. So I do. As we walk out of the gate area, a large security chap joins us and walks alongside me (I’m 5'8" and he’s maybe 6'4"). I ask both of them whether I am that dangerous. The new chap denies that he’s anything to do with security, says that he is just going landside anyway.
On the way to landside they debate whether they need to take me through passport control (immigration). They decide that they have to, since whenever in the past they did not, immigration gets stroppy. We go to the front of the passport line and one security chap explains the situation to the agent. The agent says “If it’s to do with terrorism, I can’t let him in. We better call Special Branch.” The Special Branch officer eventually comes over, is told the story, and then interrogates me about my sign. Meanwhile I confirm with him that the sign is still my property, and he agrees. When I mention the principle of free speech, he says, “We don’t have a constitution in this country so we have no free speech like in America.”
When he finds out that my flight isn’t leaving for three hours, he says, “Since we have time, I’ll run a check on his passports [I hold US and UK passports].” He comes back and explains to the Virgin security chaps that “His record is clean and he hasn’t committed any offence, except lacking good sense. So I’m happy for him to enter.” He warns me not to wear my sign entering the United States because I will be pulled over and questioned within 5 minutes there, and then they will call him and ask “How did that happen?” I figure that now is not the time to explain that on a previous trip I had worn the sign into the United States as a test of freedom of speech. He then waves us on, saying “Every freedom has a price, and you just paid the price.” We then go through customs as a group and eventually make it to the Virgin ticket desk to wait for the head of security. I regret that customs didn’t stop me, otherwise I could watch the Virgin security explain that I cannot be importing anything because I haven’t gone anywhere yet.
The second security chap is now joined by a third, and I ask the second one, who was not “just going that way anyway”, whether they think I am so dangerous. “You have to understand,” they say, “that we have procedures to follow, and you as a passenger should be glad that we have strict security to make everyone safer.” Meanwhile we wait for the Boss. One security chap has my sign curled into a roll. I ask him to hold it flat because the paper in it is fragile after a year of wearing it. He readily agrees and steps behind a low gate to hold it there, so that no passenger in the airport glimpses the forbidden idea.
He also told me a story from when he was with British Airways security. On a flight from Washington to London, two guys were talking about their jacket. An old lady in front of them called the crew over and warned them that people behind her were talking about ‘hijacking’. The crew then alerted ground control; two RAF fighter jets scrambled to accompany the plane down to Heathrow. It sat on the tarmac for 4 hours while Special Branch interrogated the passengers, eventually letting everyone off when it was clear what had happened.
The security boss eventually showed up. He interrogated me about my sign for a while, and eventually said “We are happy for you to fly on the next Virgin flight.” But, he said, the sign couldn’t board the plane. So I suggested again that I post it to myself. The other security chaps said, “We’ll post it.” I didn’t trust them to send it. A boss might order to throw it away as too dangerous. So I insisted that I post it. They said, “Do you mind if we accompany you to the postbox?” I said no. So one chap followed me to the W.H. Smith stationary store where I bought a large envelope and stamps. I put the sign in the envelope, addressed and stamped it. We walked to the postbox and he helped me slide it into the narrow slot.
After we got back to the ticketing desk, the other chaps were still waiting. Once they were told that the dangerous sign was safely in the postbox and safely off my person, they issued me a boarding pass for the next flight, which I boarded without problem.
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