Inspired by this news story, I have returned to what is arguably my favourite thing to moan about. It has to be said that writing a blog about air travel (posted under my real name no less!) which is going to probably use a few watchwords that are of interest to certain law enforcement agencies is probably not a brilliant idea. Even less so when you have a holiday booked in the foreseeable future. But oh well, if I do end up detained for the crime of attempted blogging, it will at least be an experience to remember…
Back to Mr. Al Kwawahir, a man who boarded a flight from Saudi Arabia to Detroit carrying a pressure cooker. If you are living in a bubble, this was a device used to store/carry/make the bombs used in the Boston Marathon attack last month, and as a result, set off a few alarm bells with customs officials. This isn’t the full story, unfortunately (for Mr. Al Kwawahir).
The man in question (I was going to say “our friend”, but that seemed a bit self-implicating given he is currently being detained and customs officials don’t get jokes) was guilty of 3 things:
- Carrying a pressure cooker
- Having a passport which had a page removed
- having the name Mr. Al Kwawahir and not Mr. Roberts
Give me a break on number 3, ok? If you think that racial profiling doesn’t take place in this setting, you are more naive than Mr. Al Kwawahir. The British Metropolitan Police ran Operation Trident which specifically targeted black youths in London, as that demographic were understood more likely to be involved in gun crime, and that was basically considered ok. If they can get away with that, what makes you think anyone will worry about the racial profiling of Arab men on aeroplanes?
Conspiracy theory speculation aside, the second point is arguably the one that is actually a thing. The guy said he has no idea how the page came to be missing, which sounds unlikely to me, because I can’t imagine anything happening to my passport without me knowing about it. In fact, only my wife would know where to find it, and I can’t imagine she would be the culprit here. However, I am also struggling to imagine a nefarious reason for removing a page from a passport. To my knowledge, if you are considered a dangerous criminal, the police don’t stamp the word “MENACE” on a single page of your passport and hand it back to you, safe in the knowledge that you can now not travel abroad. If you don’t want someone to use a passport, just don’t give it back to them, or at least put them on some international blacklist or something. Or, I don’t know, put them in Guantanamo?
In my mind, there are numerous potential reasons for cutting a page out of a passport. All of them rather foolish, but none particularly malicious. Perhaps a friend of his drew a penis shape in it on a recent stag do, or (more likely), he visited a country like Israel, Iran or Cuba, whose passport stamp can easily get you detained/fined when travelling to another country (particularly the USA). Visiting these countries isn’t a crime (or maybe it is, but it shouldn’t be), but apparently it is totally fine to assume that anyone who has ever been to Cuba is some sort of monster and shouldn’t be allowed back into the US. If I was half-asleep when entering Cuba, and somehow got stamped by mistake, I would be worrying about how I would pay the $5,000 fine that will be issued next time I go to the US. Of course, removing the page seems like a pretty stupid step to take, but that rather fits in with the profile created by the rest of the story anyway.
Speaking of stupid steps, I am genuinely at a total loss trying to understand why anyone would try and take a pressure cooker on a flight to the United States. There is no other country in the world where I would expect it would be easier to get hold of a consumer good such as this, so I really don’t see why you wouldn’t just buy one when you get there. And that applies regardless of your motives: If I am extremely charitable towards the security services who arrested this man and assume that his plan was indeed to manufacture a Boston pressure cooker bomb, it still remains to be understood why he didn’t just buy an American one?
I assume there wasn’t any C4 (or whatever explosive was actually in the Boston bombs) in the man’s luggage, because surely it would have been mentioned if there was, so if he was a bomber he was already aware he’d need to acquire certain crucial elements to his plot after his arrival in Detroit. Why not go the whole hog and buy the cooker at Walmart or something while you’re at it? If anything, this helps convince me that he wasn’t a terrorist, just an idiot. Maybe he had a spare cooker, and neither he nor his nephew could afford to buy a new one? Even so, it must have cost a fair bit to get the cooker (which I assume counted as “excess baggage”) on to the plane. Maybe he didn’t think of that either. Or maybe he had done the sums and this is one of those weird scenarios where the stupid option is actually the right one? Whatever, transporting cookware across international borders surely isn’t a crime, otherwise the German-made Bosch cooker in your kitchen is going to cause you some problems.
The thing that really kills me about this story is that in the wide world a lot of people will be reading it and thinking “Thank GOD they stopped that bastard!” Yes, it is probably a viewpoint borne out of casual xenophobia, but more importantly they are happy to suspend everyone’s rights (such as the right to transport cookers), including their own, in order to feel safe.
I once had a water bottle confiscated from me at airport security. It was actually empty (apart from air, smartass), but just having it in my hand luggage was forbidden. So it was binned. This annoyed me a bit more than it should, because the bottle was an unusual size and shape (purchased in America, coincidentally) and fit perfectly into the side pocket of my rucksack. I almost made a fuss, except I had already learnt not to do that in airports. I once muttered (MUTTERED!) under my breath in a security queue that the draconian measures were themselves a threat to democracy, and found myself on the receiving end of a very thorough, “random” search when I got to the front. That was not a coincidence, and it was terrifying.
So instead of making a fuss, guess what I did instead? I went through security (silently) and purchased a brand new water bottle from a shop on the international side! I get that people are concerned about liquid explosives, but my empty water bottle clearly didn’t have anything in it. Any act I could have committed with this bottle could also be done with the replacement I purchased (once I had drunk the contents), which surely proves that the rule makes no sense. We don’t understand why the rule is there, but we accept it because it makes us feel safe (and because questioning it singles you out quite a bit).
I should enjoy air travel. You get your own seat and tv set and are instructed to sit still and watch movies for 8 hours while a smartly-dressed lady in sensible shoes serves you drinks. That sounds great, but it isn’t because someone has just scanned my laptop and shoes (again, why? If i’m hiding something, it isn’t in my shoes, it’s somewhere a lot more personal) and it leaves me feeling just a tiny bit violated. I don’t get why it is done and the official reasons given don’t stack up, and that just makes me feel uncomfortable, because I don’t understand the real rationale and I would really like to.