Nothing, and I mean nothing, about me screams “cares to cause a disturbance” or “could survive in prison.” I am simply not cut from that thread at all. So, when several very serious law enforcement agents tell me “don’t move and put your hands up,” I do exactly that. I stand there, stiff as a board, hands to the sky, and I pray. I pray for a pardon.
A pardon that eliminates the need for extensive questioning, fingerprints, a background check, photos, missed flights, gawking strangers, and police escort from airport grounds. I pray that today will turn out to be my lucky day.
It started as a normal travel day. It’s Thursday, January 12th, 2012 7:30pm and I’m scheduled to fly out of Ft. Lauderdale heading to Washington, D.C. for a friend’s birthday.
I arrive to the airport just in time (read: I’m running a little late), and I search for my travel buddy, Ashley. To no surprise, Ash hasn’t arrived yet, and looking at the time if she didn’t get there at any moment, we probably wouldn’t catch our flight. I send a threatening text message, and moments later Ash arrives -- bubbly as always. We grab our boarding passes, and rush over to security. We get to the security line and of course, it’s slow, crowded, and not working in the favor of those running late for a flight.
Thankfully, it wasn’t before too long that we finally passed the first checkpoint and were in line to go through body scanning and x-ray. Things were looking good. If all ran smoothly, we just might make it. We start to get closer and I grow hopeful. Everything seemed to be working out beautifully. Everyone in our line appeared to be seasoned travelers; no babies, no metals, no muss, no fuss.
We finally make it to the front of the line and I’m up next. And here’s where it goes down.
Things start off pretty standard -- I slip off my shoes and place them in one bin while placing my laptop in another bin, I throw my laptop bag in with the shoes, and toss my carry-on luggage onto the conveyor belt; all fairly simple. The TSA agent gestures. I step into the scanner and raise my hands like a pro. I exit the scanner and wait for my bags to flow through x-ray.
I wait. I wait some more. I wait even more because, really, I have no choice.
I try to make eye contact with the TSA agent behind the x-ray machine, and I notice that he pointedly ignores me. I mean, I understand you’re being thorough and all, sir (and don’t get me wrong, I love you for it) but I’m going to need you to do me a solid and let go of my things.
I then notice that he’s whispering to the TSA agent standing to his left. I’m offended. I exhale a deep audible sigh, cross my arms, and shift to my right hip -- a threat to TSA that I had about reached my limit, and was on the verge of losing all cool.
The whispers were followed by both agents pointing -- not at me, but at the x-ray screen. They call over a third agent to join in.
That’s when I felt it. That gradual rising dread that comes along with knowing that something is wrong. Very wrong. And whatever it is that’s wrong has something to do with me -- I felt it like never before. My mind raced, chest pumped, and stomach dropped all in a second. What in the world had I done? What could they possibly be staring at? Why the extra agent? Surely, I removed all liquids! Is this about my pointy hair comb? Don’t tell me it was my…(gasp!).
The truth seemed to hit us all at the exact same time.
“No, she didn’t,” grieved Ash as she deflated on the other side of the scanner.
“Oh, yes, she did,” confirmed the TSA Agent.
“We need everyone to exit this line and step far to your left!” announced Agent #2, coming from behind the x-ray machine with a shifted sense of urgency. “I repeat: move to your far left. This line is now closed!” he boomed. Before I could collect my thoughts, I was completely surrounded.
Suddenly, standing before me was the Department of Homeland Security, the Broward County Sheriff’s Department and even more TSA agents.
“Your day just got interesting,” sneered the sheriff. And indeed it had.
Turns out that yes, I had removed all liquids and no, there wasn’t any problem with my hair comb. There was, however, a problem with the fully loaded .380 semi-automatic pistol left in my carry-on bag.
You see, I forgot.
While packing my things, and triple checking to make sure I was well stocked with extra panty liners and a deck of playing cards, I forgot to remove my handgun from my purse, which had been placed in my carry-on luggage. That’s right, a firearm with no safety sent through security looking to board a flight to Washington, D.C.
I'd clearly outdone myself.
I’d pictured my evening going totally different. I imagined that by 9pm I would be somewhere with vodka in my left hand and a cutie in my right. Instead, this was an evening spent answering hours of countless questions about enemies, tattoos, work history, gang affiliations, drug use, criminal past, and the most pressing question of them all: why was I attempting to board a flight with a handgun?
Good freaking question with a not-so-great answer. I simply forgot it was there. The fact that it was in my purse was as secondary to me as my lip-gloss being there. In a rush to make sure that I had everything I needed and could get to the airport on time, I missed the last thing on my checklist -- remove handgun.
I didn’t know things would go as far as they did. I knew this was bad -- like really bad -- but I couldn’t quite gauge to what extent. I sat there in the interrogation room shaking and passing nervous gas. Ash sat right outside of the door. She was an accomplice.
I couldn't go to jail. I imagined being carried out of the airport kicking and screaming in protest. They’d take me no other way. The night ran long, and anxiety ran high until things got cool. After my fingerprints, background check, and firearm cleared, I was pretty much free to go. Sure, we were police escorted out of the airport while strangers whispered and gawked. But, aside from the embarrassment, I figured the worst of it was over.
Then it happened.
It started with the hefty fines. I was warned about the fine possibility while at the airport so it came as no real surprise. You’ve got to pay for that type of governmental manpower. Then came the letter requesting that I hire an attorney or face federal charges. That’s right, charges. I could’ve sworn we settled this at the airport! How long has forgetfulness been a federal offense? I contacted an attorney and charges were settled.
Then. Came. The FBI Watchlist.
I had no clue. Five months of my life spent on the radar. Five months of my being watched by the FBI and I hadn’t the slightest idea. I lived, browsed, and socially networked all while being watched.
What did this watchlist mean? I wondered, and still do. What happened to my right to privacy (if such a thing ever existed)? What exactly did a watchlist imply that they were watching? Was I then and am I now under a microscope?
It wasn’t until I was taken off of the watchlist that I even knew that I was put on. I received a letter in the mail indicating that my case was settled, that my travel should be unaffected in the future, and that I’d be removed from the FBI Watchlist. Gee, thanks for the FYI.
The experience was fleeting, but the long-term effects, not-so-much. I'm still living with an unshakable paranoia that I'm always being watched.