An early terrorist suspect

EDITOR DETAINED AT AIRPORT

1998 – The Progressive Review”s editor, Sam Smith, was detained at Washington National Airport for a half hour on Wednesday Nov. 4 as five US Airways security officials, 3 police officers, and one bomb-sniffing dog attempted to determine if he was, as they suspected, a terrorist.

Total evidence for the suspicion came from a defective high tech security machine convinced that the Quaker-educated Smith’s computer and power supply box contained nitroglycerine. Despite admitting that certain brands of computers had been falsely interpreted by the machine, the security officials required former Coast Guard officer Smith to empty everything from his backpack. They also called two passenger service shift managers to the scene who ordered the 60-year-old Smith”s checked bags removed from the aircraft and inspected for traces of explosives. One of the bags carried clothes, the other contained copies of “Sam Smith”s Great American Political Repair Manual” (WW Norton, 1997, $14.95) for sale during appearances by Smith. The backpack contained considerable Carefree gum, various paperwork, as well as Richard Sennett’s “The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism.” In his book, Sennett notes that in all forms of work, people identify with tasks that are difficult, tasks that challenge them. In the new workplace, however, the machine has become “the only real standard of order. . . By a terrible paradox, when we diminish difficulty and resistance, we create the very conditions for uncritical and indifferent activity on the part of the users.”

By the time the computer had been tested by a second machine, which also thought the Fujitsu laptop might be a bomb, Smith, who has never received even a speeding ticket before, began having intimations of imminent mortality as well as feeling deep humiliation and shock as hundreds of his fellow US Airways passengers walked by observing his plight. Efforts to engage the security personnel in normal human discourse produced but a stream of bureaucratic bromides such as “I’m just doing my job,” “There is nothing I can do,” and “I don”t make the rules.” Efforts to stave off physical collapse by sitting on the table, however, brought a rebuke from one of the guards. At no time was any concern expressed for the needs or physical comfort of US Airways frequent flyer Smith.

Said longtime Washington journalist Smith, who was on his way to Kansas City to give several talks and interviews and take part in a conference of Green activists: “I was trapped in that post-Orwellian synergy of defective technology and incompetent bureaucracy. At a time when our highest public officials ignore the law with impunity, it appears that a citizen a few years shy of Medicare can no longer go about his business without being considered a terrorist. I was told that it was all being done for my own good, but I fail to see how being publicly terrified and humiliated by US Airways because it has bought some crummy techno-toy helps the war against terrorism. Any terrorist watching the incident would have been emboldened rather than chastened.”

In the end, the bomb-sniffing dog happily nosed about the computer, licked the hard drive and quickly returned without complaint to K-9 officer Jim Cox. Smith, who covered his first Washington story in 1957, was permitted to restuff his backpack and board the plane. Said Vietnam era veteran Smith, “”A half dozen living human beings surrendered their will to a dubious creation of the late 20th century marketplace of fear, but the dog was smart enough to trust his own judgment. Officer Cox, to his credit, trusted the dog as well. As Harry Truman said, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Cox was the only one of those involved in the search who expressed more than perfunctory concern to Smith, visiting the plane before takeoff to do so. Flight attendant Brian M. Lindsay, who had observed the bizarre incident as he checked through security, also expressed dismay and checked on Smith”s well-being several times during the flight.

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