A friend of mine, someone with whom I work regularly, went back to England last week for the funeral of an uncle. Out of respect for my friend and an apparent growing need for anonymity for those born outside the USA, I will call my friend “George.”
Overall, George had a meaningful week. He attended the funeral with family and was able to visit with friends along the way. Unable to get a direct flight from England to Atlanta, George had to come home to Atlanta by way of New York City.
“I was so tired,” George, remembered, “I just wanted to get on the plane.” While waiting to board his flight at JFK to head back to Atlanta, a man in street clothes approached him saying, “Come with me.”
Taken aback, George asked, “Who are you that I should go with you?” The man revealed a badge on his belt. Concerned, George complied with his request and accompanied the assumed “agent” (my word) on a 20-minute walk to a totally “other” part of the airport. George entered a small office where another agent was waiting.
It was there that these agents, yet unidentified, questioned George about his trip, intentions and luggage. The interrogation was in-depth and got personal. George’s main concerns were about missing his flight and the location of his bag. The agent told him, “You will make your flight.”
During the questioning, the agents implied they knew something about the contents of George’s bag and his intentions, only later to recant and divulge that the agents never opened his bag or had anything incriminating about him. The interrogation then turned to the subject of Turkey.
Two years ago, George took a trip to Turkey from England. One of the things I envy about Europeans is the fact that they are, in many cases, well travelled. I love to travel and wish I could do more. During the interrogation, George informed the agents that he had been simply a tourist in Turkey. They asked him about a boat ride he took there. George answered that it was for pleasure. They asked if he had spoken with any Turkish people there. Yes, he had indeed spoken with a number of Turkish people. That is who lives there.
They asked about his British/American dual citizenship. “It is very convenient,” George replied. After all, he lives and works in the U.S. Interesting that agents two years ago never detained or interrogated George, either entering or exiting Turkey. So, why now?
At the end of questioning, the agent asked if they could take George’s picture. The agent posted it on a website and asked him if the photo was an accurate likeness. “Is the photo similar to the likeness displayed on your passport?”
“Yes it is,” George replied.
“You are free to go.” George made his way to a Delta supervisor’s office where he noticed his bag sitting in a corner of the room.
“Do you have any idea why I was detained,” George asked the supervisor.
“No I don’t,” came the reply.
“Surely, you must have some idea,” George pressed.
“All I can tell you is that this sort of thing has been going on since January,” acknowledged the supervisor. “They will take one off of this flight and maybe two off of that flight every couple of flights.”
“Two what,” I wondered.
George missed his flight after all. “That’s too bad,” said the Delta supervisor. Upon his eventual return home to Atlanta, George shared the story of his JFK ordeal with his adult son. Immediately, his son asked, “Dad, why did you go with him?”
George’s reply was, “I didn’t feel I had a choice.”
“Why were you so compliant?”
George replied, “Because I didn’t want to be there all day.”
What strikes me most about this troubling experience is the fact that this unfortunate soul could have just as easily been you or me. Not that it should matter necessarily, but George is not dark skinned, nor is he a Muslim. George was born and raised in a suburb of a major city in central England to parents of Anglo-Saxon ancestry. He is as white, British and unassuming as the day is long.
“They may have pulled you aside,” I joked, “because you favor Anthony Hopkins.”
Seriously, though, I am disturbed. These “agents” were so easily able to interrupt the travel of a modest man who was minding his own business and with no consequence. George did nothing wrong or anything to call attention to himself. The “authorities” accessed personal information (they introduced the subject of Turkey).
Taken to an undisclosed, secluded location, no one knew where he was or with whom he was and with no explanation or assurance of what might happen to him. They deplaned and confiscated his personal belongings without his knowledge, permission or a warrant. They held him and questioned him without just cause.
As a result, he missed his flight and with no apology from anyone. Sounds to me like Gestapo, OVRA, or KGB rather than the United States of America. In the words of our “illustrious” president, “Sad!” … and scary.
Only weeks ago, I watched on television the stories of refugees entering Canada. The stories of refugee families, properly vetted and provided sponsoring families moved me. These families find friends welcoming them warmly. They help them find work, food, shelter and education for their children until they can get on their feet and become self-sufficient. A reporter asked a Syrian man and father of three, “What do you think about Canada?” His reply? With tears in his eyes and a smile on his face, he beamed, “Canada is my country!”
My heart sank. Not for Canada, but for America. Until now, I believed we were that country. Now, I am worried for America. While others find hope and opportunity in other places and countries find grateful, devoted citizens, America appears to be taking steps backward to a colder, darker time in history when intolerance, coercion, and control ruled the day.
My friend’s story took me back to the two times I visited New York City one of which I visited the Statue of Liberty. I can see her in my mind’s eye boldly, yet humbly welcoming the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. As I reflect on all she stands for, I cannot help but wonder what she might think were she able to hear George’s story.
Hold on to your boarding pass. You or I could be next.
[Riley is a staff chaplain, spiritual care services, at Piedmont Newnan Hospital in Newnan.]