Thai Airways flight 794 from Bangkok banks away from the approach vector that planes coming from the west normally take when landing at LAX. It passes over Hollywood and around Downtown to approach the airport from the east. The stewardesses are tense, and the mood within the plane is hostile. The craft lands well, all gears touching smoothly, nary a flutter along its long axis. It is 9:15 in the evening. We taxi for an unusual amount of time as police cars escort us with lights blazing to a secluded section of asphalt.
For nearly an hour we sit. About half of the passengers are from south-east Asia. Elderly Indian women make frequent sorties to the restrooms, but any time a man threatens even to rise from his seat, the stewardesses – thin, elegant Thai women – scream at him to sit back down. People begin to ask questions, demanding to know what is going on, requesting an explanation for our unexpected and unexplained delay. I am near the rear of the aircraft. Since I have not used the restroom in more than seven hours, I am in considerable need of making water (I purposefully dehydrate myself during flights to cut down on disturbances to my neighbor, in this instance a strange older man whose English sounds non-native.) I find myself digging around in my right cargo pocket (where I always keep a pen and at least one permanent marker), but not knowing what is going on, I instead pull out and switch on the portable gaming device I keep there.
Finally we begin to deplane. I bow to the stewardesses on the way out, thanking them in their native tongue like a good boy who has learned his manners. Dozens of U.S. federal agents line the mobile staircase asking each man as he passes to see his passport. "Are you Russian?" one agent asks me as he scans my documents rapidly. I say no. A helicopter flares its rotors low over our heads. We pass through a phalanx of airport police, TSA agents, and people wearing FBI counter-terrorism jackets, to board buses that we hope will take us to the distant terminals.
I am in the back of the third and last bus to depart. My hair is poorly kept and bleached nearly blond from three weeks of oppressive Thai sunshine. My clothes, of which I only brought one pair, are ripped and stained with sweat. The tattoos on my arms and chest are clearly visible. My bag, a cheap Nike knockoff purchased in Chiang Mai, is also ripped. We are packed tightly in the bus with TSA agents sewn heavily among us. The men are hyper-aware, scanning faces with wide and greedy eyes, looking frantically from person to person as if trying to puzzle out who is looking at whom, changing location at times to get a better view of whomever they are trying to find. A man behind me asks when we will have the chance to use the bathrooms, as we were not allowed to on the plane, and as there are none on the bus. The TSA agents answer sporadically, sometimes not at all. Having no knowledge of what is going on, and knowing that speaking unsolicited to law enforcement is a bad, bad idea (because it is the job of law enforcement officers to punish citizens, not to help them), I stand quietly between a short man with bad breath and the window, and enter a semi-trance so as to pass the time and to control the pressing need to void my bowels.
After nearly another hour we are allowed to leave the bus for a terminal building. Agents shout angrily as they direct us toward a bank of metal detectors, through which we pass, jostling with other passengers who are eager to board their departing flights. More agents direct us through a maze of narrow hallways into an apparently long-abandoned waiting area. As one of the last to enter, I have no seat, but I find a space against a wall where I stand at parade rest (legs shoulder-width apart and arms clasped above the buttocks) with my torn bag at my feet. I reenter the semi-trance, eyes fixated on the far wall. I do my own time, as they say in prison, minding my own business as would a good boy who has learned his manners. FBI agents rush back and forth clutching clip-boards and generally stirring the mood into a confused lather. They are normal-looking, often unattractive people one would never be able to pick out of a crowd.
A tall man with a concave chest approaches me, sweating under his counter-terrorism wind-breaker. "Did you notice anyone acting strange on board? Was anyone visibly upset?" he asks me. "I can't say I did, sir," I respond. "Someone wrote a threat against the airline in one of the bathrooms," he says. "So I need to know if you saw anything suspicious." I tell him I was asleep most of the flight, and that I cannot say I saw anything. He nods and walks away. At that moment I it dawns on me that I have just become am the primary suspect. The realization churns my innards but the semi-trance holds, and I resume to wait patiently for whatever is going on to end. I ramp up my peripheral vision and enter Type '81, that state in which I see everything but appear to look at nothing.
A graceful, lithe female approaches from my right. I allow her to pass before I glance at her perfectly-shaped rear end. She talks with the concave-chested agent who had approached me initially and glances over as I am staring inappropriately through the fabric of her immaculately-tailored gray suit at her buttocks. "Would you come with me?" Concave Chest says. "We need to ask you some additional questions." I am led to a secluded area piled high with rows of discarded airport seating. The TSA agent, whose name I shall not here mention, introduces himself politely. He asks me about my life, about my travels in Thailand, about my primary source of income, about my activities on the flight, about any past military training, and about where and how often I went to the bathroom on the plane. I answer his questions; we chat amicably. After nearly twenty minutes, the lithe female with the perfect ass walks over, waiting until we have concluded our pleasantries.
"Where did you get those tattoos. Were you in the military?" she says in a condescending tone. I tell her that I wasn't, but I do not explain why I have an American eagle and a Shield of the Union inked boldly into my left forearm. (It is because I love my country, because I am a Son of the American Revolution, and because I consider myself a patriot.) "Why are you so calm, and why were you standing against the wall like that," she asks. I explain that my father was a Navy man who taught me how to stand correctly. I explain that I strive always to act like a gentleman. I also mention that, as an unofficial American ambassador to the Thai nation, I had been on my best behavior throughout the trip. "Oh, well, sweet tatts," she says before turning on a heel and storming off.
"Do you have any writing instruments on your person?" my TSA guardian asks. I remove the permanent marker and pens from my pocket. "Oh," he says upon seeing the marker. A wide and joyous smile threaten to fill his features. "You had better sit down and get comfortable – this is going to take a while." The bathrooms are right next to where I am sitting, but I decide against asking to use them. The agent asks if I have had any trauma in my life recently, and I tell him that my father died not long ago. "You must still be pretty upset about that," he says. I tell him No, but he does not seem convinced. Soon thereafter, Concave Chest and a uniformed airport policeman walk over and ask me to follow them.
I round the partition to a sea of staring faces. Every single person who was on the plane, flight crew included, is staring at me. Some stare with the after-affects of shock, but most look at me as I were wearing a necklace strung with severed baby's feet. Flanked by federal agents, I fix my gaze on a point at the far end of the long hallway and walk calmly and steadily toward it. A unmarked door opens, and I am led into a large room. Two burly and armed men sit along a far wall with their elbows on their knees looking at me with poorly-veiled blood-lust. "This way," someone says, leading me into a smaller, glass-walled room that sits within the larger room. Seven FBI counter-terrorism agents are waiting for me, including Lithe Female. I am directed to sit in a cheap folding chair at a cheap folding table.
“This is federal property," Concave Chest says, gesturing at the four walls. "This room is wired for recording, and we can search anything we want, here." "Fine by me," I say, shrugging. Since I have not yet passed through customs, I know that I am in international waters where I have few, if any, rights. I stay calm and control my breathing with the remnants of the semi-trance. My mind is utterly still and focused to a razor sharpness. Every passing second bears tremendous weight, and as the agents lean toward me with pens poised above notepads, I relax in the knowledge that I have done nothing wrong.
Concave Chest says his name and the name of another agent, a short, ugly man whose face looks like that of a Tolkien troll. I force myself not to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, since my mind is constantly comparing the agents in front of me to every beautiful, dashing agent in every spy movie I have ever seen. "Do you have a camera?" Concave Chest asks. I give him my camera, and as he is rifling through it, the Tolkien-Troll-looking man asks me which cities I visited in Thailand, with whom I associated, where I stayed, if I met any shady or unsavory characters, and if I participated in any sort of military training. I answer truthfully while forcing myself not to look over at the three agents who are emptying my torn Nike bag and carefully fingering its seams.
"You have a lot of pictures of graffiti and tagging in this camera," Concave Chest says. "Thailand is chock full of amazing street art," I say. "I never would have thought that there would be so much beautiful graffiti there." My zeal has little impact on their stony demeanors. "Have you ever done any tagging yourself?" he asks. I say that I have not. "Are you willing to answer that under polygraph?" I say that I am ready take a lie detector test at any time. "Well, the thing is,” he says, “we have your customs declaration here, and, while we're not handwriting experts (those guys will be here soon), we do see a fair bit of this sort of thing, and, again, we're going to have to run this past the handwriting guys, but the way you wrote the letters O and P on your customs form is very similar to the Os and the Ps used to write the note. Again, we're not experts, but when the Os and Ps are similar, it pretty much indicates a match."
"OK," I say, nodding and waiting for them to proceed. "Did he have any writing implements on him?" Concave Chest says. Before I can answer, my cordial TSA guardian pulls my marker from his pocket and places it on the table. Concave Chest's face lights up with excitement. "So," he says, "we have the pictures of graffiti in your camera, and we have your marker, and we have the handwriting match on your customs declaration. It would be best for you to just get this over with now. If you admit to anything later on, before a judge, things will go far worse for you. So, you should probably just get it over with now."
Variables flash through my mind and I think, 'Shit, if I mess this up, I am looking at three to five years in a maximum security federal prison. Just. Stay. Calm.' I nod and look around at the assembled agents leaning forward expectantly. Concave Chest repeats himself, again telling me that I should just get it over with now before I reach a judge. "Look," I say, pointing at the items on the table, the camera and the marker and the form. "I realize that all these things probably indicate to you that I am somehow involved with…" (here I pause, for the agents have all perked up and leaned forward and are straining their ears to hear exactly what I am about to say, thereby indicating just how important my next words are) "… that I am somehow involved in Whatever Happened On The Plane, but I refuse to confess to a crime I did not commit."
"That is your right, here in America," Concave Chest says, thus enveloping me in the awesome and comforting blanket of the Bill of Rights. "Will you repeat your preceding statements under polygraph?" "Absolutely. I've been on a plane for sixteen hours, and my internal clock is way off sync,” I say, “but if you need me to polygraph tomorrow morning, at eight a.m., I shall be there. I went to the bathroom once, just once, on the right-hand side of the plane forward of my seat." "So you didn't go to the bathroom on the left-hand side of the plane?" he says. "No, I did not. I did not even set foot on the left-hand side of the plane. I was in seat number ###C. Compare the fingerprints on that seat to the fingerprints in the bathroom. You will find none of my prints in the bathroom where whatever happened occurred. You will find my prints in the bathroom nearest to my seat, on the right-hand side of the plane, and in the vicinity of that seat, but nowhere else."
"Will you repeat these statements under polygraph?" he says. I again assert that I am ready to polygraph at any time. Again he tells me to, "Just get it over with now because it will be better for you in the long run." Again I tell him that I refuse to confess to a crime I did not commit. "As a matter of fact," I say, "take my permanent marker. Run a chemical analysis on the ink in my marker against the ink used to write the note. You will find they are not a match." I sit heavily into the chair and stare at the assembled feds while I force my breathing back to normal and the anger within me to abate.
"Well, we have your phone number, and we know where and for how long you'll be in Los Angeles, so, we'll be in touch," Concave Chest says, rising to his feet. "Do you have a criminal record?" he says, offhand. I shake my head and say No. His eyebrows rise incredulously. "Thank you all very much for your time," I say politely as I turn to follow an agent back out into the waiting area. I sit next to an elderly Japanese gentleman. He looks at me and says, "What is going on?" "They think I am a terrorist," I say, smiling. He laughs until he shakes in his seat.
I take a bottled water from a passing pushcart and, after a few minutes, walk with the rest of the passengers through a warren of forgotten passageways to the customs area. While I am waiting in line (and getting stared at constantly by hovering federal agents), my unpleasant neighbor during the flight keeps giving me strange looks from where he is standing a few lines down. But before I can make anything of his glances I am called to the customs desk, where a stone-faced agent dutifully stamps my passport. Having no checked luggage, I walk calmly through the baggage retrieval area toward the exit, but, halfway there, my former TSA guardian, he whose name I shall not mention, stops me short. "You don't have any checked baggage? You traveled alone, to Thailand, without checked baggage?" "I like to travel light," I say, "it cuts down on time and all but eliminates the likelihood of airline error." He attempts to engage me in conversation, but I have had enough; I keep my answers short and my eyes fixed on the ground. It is nearly one in the morning. He bids be farewell and I exit into the main arrivals hall without further delay. After urinating for what seems like an eternity, I call my lawyer to let him know what just transpired. Forced to remove cash from a highly-priced ATM (because both my prearranged ride and the cheap bus have stopped running), and sick of being shadowed by uniformed officers, I count my twenties, hail a taxi-cab, and speed off into the night, a free man.
p.s. If a law enforcement agent tells you to confess, claiming that it would be better for you to "Get it over with now rather than later," he or she is bluffing, he or she wants you to sacrifice your rights, he or she is your enemy and an enemy of Liberty, and he or she wants only to send you to prison. Please do not ever – EVER – forfeit your rights and protections. Thousands of good Americans have died to guarantee those rights. Educate yourself, and fight tyranny and oppression wherever they might raise their ugly heads.
p.p.s. I never received a call, and I have been neither questioned nor approached since.
mentiri factorem fecit – 場黑麥