Fear of flying (or landing): Your Customs Service in peace and war

Airport security nightmare

3 minute read
Sniffing for concealed truffles: No longer a laughing matter. (Photo: 'The Onion.')
Sniffing for concealed truffles: No longer a laughing matter. (Photo: 'The Onion.')
When the dog jumped around Jim, he reached down to pat him. Then Jim noticed that the dog was leashed to a U.S. Customs officer.

"Step this way," the officer said.

My husband Jim had arrived in Houston after a 12-hour flight from Brazil in late October. Coach, 5 a.m.

"Do you have any contraband to declare?" the officer asked. "If we find anything and you haven't declared it, things will go harder."

Jim blinked, stupid with fatigue. Contraband? Why would anyone declare contraband?

He shook his head. He was just a 67-year-old salesman, tired and confused. He had spent four hours getting from his hotel to the plane and another 12 hours crammed into a coach seat, and this after a full day on the convention floor.

Jim watched the officer examine his bag very carefully. He had checked it in SaÓµ Paolo to save lugging it around the airport during the four-hour layover on the way home to San Jose, California.

Guns and tasers

"Step this way," two more uniforms with holstered guns and tasers instructed him. They led him into a windowless room furnished with steel tables.

"Take off your coat, your shoes and your belt. Lace your fingers and put your hands on the wall. Do not look down, do not speak or we will take you down. Do not turn around. Do exactly as we say or we will take you down."

Jim obeyed.

"Spread your legs. Further." One officer kicked Jim's feet apart. The other began the body search, squeezing his arms and chest. Jim winced when the hand grasped the recent surgery incision on his right breast. Mitral valve repair in April.

"Loosen your pants." The officer reached a gloved hand down the back of his pants, outside his shorts, into the cleft of his buttocks and around to his testicles. He squeezed hard.

"All right, you can get dressed now." Jim reassembled himself.

"Do you want to speak to our superior now?" they asked. For a tiny moment Jim considered how that might possibly improve the situation and shook his head. He stretched the handle of his suitcase, rolled it out of the Customs area and called me.

What happened?

The longer I thought about what he told me, the more frightened I became. How could our own safety enforcers have treated a citizen like this? By the time his taxi pulled up at the house I was in tears.

For a week we chewed this over. Why had the drug dog marked him? Does Jim, a balding white man, look Islamic? Had a baggage handler in SaÓµ Paolo added contraband to his suitcase? Why the warning about "contraband"? What kind of fool would carry contraband and then declare it?

What goes on in those windowless rooms with easy-to-hose-down stainless steel tables anyway? Should we complain to someone, somewhere, our Congressman, Mike Honda? What the hell could he do?

Writer-wife here asked Jim if the search included his penis. No. The front of your shorts? No.

What if he had a penile implant? I suppose you could load that. Heck, I could load a breast enhancement. A colostomy bag. Yes, you can shove a tube up your rectum and detonate it with your cell phone. Hearing aid, blind man's cane. We humans are just made for exploding ourselves. And others.

Two lessons we learned: Never fly through Houston. And never fly into the United States. Let's see: You fly to Vancouver and take a cab over the border to Seattle. Or fly to Toronto and take a cab over to Buffalo.

Oh, one more: don't wear shorts.♦

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