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Air Travel Under Orange Alert

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August 10, 2006 was my mom's 81st birthday. I hadn't seen her in over two years, so last month I booked a flight from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina to Little Rock, Arkansas. Mom lives in Hot Springs, where there is a big sign at the city limits that says "The Boyhood Home of President Bill Clinton," with an amusement park roller coaster track in the background. I reserved tickets to fly to Arkansas on August 9th, with a return flight August 12th.

My relatives are all busy Arkansans, mostly watching their household budgets, with family dramas that sprout like dandelions. The only internet hook-up is my sister's dial-up that takes around 45 minutes to load anything with an image. The legions of dusty, abraded grandkids and great-grandkids, who are rotated among the family to accommodate work schedules, like kids throughout the US of A, watch neuron-sedating television cartoons while they ingest sugar and food dye. My mom watches a channel with black-and-white movies.

The fact that a raccoon tipped over the trash last night has a lot more currency than anything Wolf Blitzer might have to say. My point is I was cut off, thankfully, from what passes for news.

I did not know that the ersatz journalists of print and airwave were, in their usual hyperventilative way, attempting to put the whole world on tenterhooks about some alleged plot to blow up airplanes with hair gel and Game Boys.

It was my mother, who is attracted to any whiff of the apocalypse like a Bedouin to an oasis, heard about it on her car radio (yes, she still drives... often for thousands of miles... mostly by sense of smell). In the spirit of Arkansas tale-telling, by the time she relayed the terrifying news to me, it was clear that I would board the plane without bags and probably be disrobed, hermetically sealed in non-flammable plastic, and drugged before I was allowed to take my assigned seat.

So I tuned in to Mom's television, as sticky great-nieces and great-nephews clambered over me. The high-priests of paranoia gushed away on CNN and MSNBC (FOX still causes me to experience unwelcome mortar-firing fantasies). The usual parade of know-nothing terrorism experts came aboard to answer questions designed to render the reality of the plot axiomatic. There was even an appearance -- I swear this is true -- by some macho-bizarro caricature who calls himself "Dog the Bounty Hunter." Dog's appearance can only be described as retro-mescaline. He was presented as "a terrorism expert."

I was completely frustrated, however, in any attempt to understand what the sources were for this story, and what actual evidence had been collected to support the nefarious plot's existence.

I know these are pedestrian concerns in times of such mortal peril. Perhaps I have become as lunatic as those people who refuse to leave their homes before volcanoes and hurricanes, though at least they seem to be warned by geologists and meteorologists. From what I could discern, we were being warned by governments -- by the governments of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, no less. Is it really too irascible of me to point out a fairly consistent history of co-conspirator delinquency here?

That they were aided by the government of... uh, Pervez Musharraf?

Now the same "news" media are branding those if us who still have a shred of skepticism as conspiracy theorists. That's a good one, especially from people who claim to have uncovered a plot by dozens of people to blow up an untold number of airplanes using toothpaste, hair cream, or root beer floats. From a government, in our case at least, that now claims it was tracking the case "for weeks," but that is just now warning the public that we were moments away from (oh, no hyperbole here) "mass murder on an inimaginable scale." Time Magazine wrote that script, carefully coached, no doubt, by whomever is doing Scooter Libby's job these days with whomsoever is the equivalent of Judith Miller.

Unimaginable? That means... what? More than Iraq? Dresden? Auschwitz? Native America? The Middle Passage? Hiroshima?

But back to my flying story...

I left Hot Springs for Little Rock, a one-hour drive, at noon in order to be ahead of time for a 4 PM departure. I'm always compulsively early, a holdover from my years in the Army, but I had no idea what kind of "security" buffoonery I might encounter on this trip, so I brought along a copy of the latest Adbusters magazine, a 1997 Maize Magazine published by Arkansas Land Lesbians (yes, there is such a thing), and Alice Walker's "Anything We Love Can Be Saved" to help me wile away my temporal extension in Fluorescent Hell.

My expectation, based on Mom's interpretation of unfolding events, was that all baggage would have to be checked. I seldom check bags these days, even if it means wearing my socks for two days, because there is a special order by the government out to all airlines to misplace my luggage. So I stuck a strip of masking tape on every conceivable side of my old backpack and my rollaway mini-suitcase with the flight numbers and final destination as insurance against them disappearing in to some kind of corporate-bureaucratic ditch. My suitcase was full of documents related to an investigative venture, and the marginal notes that were accumulated therein were pretty much irreplaceable.

When I arrived at Little Rock Airport it was swarming with underpaid, non-unionized TSA people who'd been posted in squads in front of the x-ray conveyors, at the usual posts, albeit in larger numbers, with the metal detectors, and even in front of some of the boarding gates. I asked one of the people at the ticketing desk if all baggage had to be checked, and she explained the rules. Nothing soft and wet... not even the half-gallon bottle of water I was drinking.

"If I drink some of it in front of them," I asked, "can I keep the bottle of water?"

"No," she explained patiently. "You'll have to drink it before you go in. You can buy more water once you are inside, but you can't take that on the airplane."

Made sense to me. If I were a suicide airplane bomber, I'd have no problem chugging my gasoline or peroxide or botulinum toxin in front of TSA officials and pretending it was as smooth as Mountain Valley spring water. At least I didn't have to relinquish custody of my documents. Only my potential bomb-making material would have to be checked... toothpaste, shampoo, antiseptic cream. The slackers at Homeland Security had not considered the possibility that I might construct a slow chemical time-fuse to ignite a tube of fuselage-melting mousse.

When I was checked again at the gate, they rummaged through the redacted government papers and my subversive literature, overlooking the sedition right there in front of them in their obsession to identify bathroom bombardiers. They even allowed me on board with a pack of chewing gum, never suspecting that it might be C-4 plastic explosive.

One gentleman, taken by surprise at the prepare-to-board call, was forced to gulp a huge milkshake. I almost got a brain-freeze from watching him.

My layover was in Memphis, where I tried hard to focus on Alice Walker's poetry as a defense against the incessant CNN drivel that is pumped out at all airline passengers in the United States.

Gone were the internecine battles within the Republican Party. Gone was the defeat of Lieberman over the war. Gone was the destruction of Lebanon. Gone was Tony Blair's crooked fund-raiser. Gone was Iraq...

Gone, gone, gone...

There was an Orange Alert, and those of using the nation's airports were gulping, gulping, gulping down liquids to satisfy Michael Chertoff that we wouldn't smuggle mass death aboard disguised as a latte.

As always, however, the press was vigilant. The flagship New York Times had written on the 11th (at least in its on-line version), "Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said new restrictions imposed on travelers reflected a belief that the plotters planned to use liquids, 'each one of which would be benign, but mixed together could be used to create a bomb.'" As the public began to comment on how vague this seemed as the basis for wasting milkshakes and bottled water, the wording was changed to "Mr. Chertoff said the attackers planned to carry explosive material and detonation components disguised as beverages, electronic devices and other common objects' onto the planes."

Judith Miller worked for the Times, too.

But I suppose I am just a conspiracy theorist... an odd one, however, that is saying "be less afraid," lest we all allow ourselves to be made bigger nitwits than Dog the Bounty Hunter or Tony (the poodle) Blair.