A while ago, I read a frightening piece in The New York Times, on looted weapons in Libya. The hopeful side of the report is that the opposition to the brutal dictator (who has systematically attacked unarmed citizens) is militarily empowered, using the weapons of the dictatorial regime against the dictatorship. But the Times report emphasized the dangers. With arms now circulating outside the formal control of the state, there is a high likelihood that some of them will reach the black market and get into the hands of terrorists outside this zone of conflict. C.J. Chives, the Times reporter examines particularly this dangerous side of recent events there.
Indeed it’s scary. Nihilists of various sorts might obtain missiles that are capable of attacking commercial airliners. As someone who often flies abroad for professional and family purposes, I am particularly concerned. This security threat is very real, Chives reports, because in relatively recent past examples of state arsenals being looted by civilians, Uganda in 1979, Albania in 1997 and Iraq in 2003, the fear has been confirmed.
When I was reading this article, I thought about another circumstance when such fear in the end seems to have proven unfounded, and in which I was peripherally involved. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 led many to worry that terrorists, who had been armed and supported by the Soviet bloc, would become rogue and free floating. Further, there was the fear that their preferred weapons, sophisticated plastic explosives, specifically semtex, might be used in new ways, not disciplined by the logic of the cold war. It was in this context that I became a suspected terrorist.
I was coming home from a two month trip around the old Soviet bloc in the late winter of 1990. This visit would later become the basis of my theoretical travelogue, After the Fall: The Pursuit of Democracy in Central Europe. I met colleagues in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, what would become the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland, and the Soviet Union, specifically Leningrad. I was on a mission to lend support to those who sought to develop new curricula in the social sciences, and meeting with democratic oppositionists of various sorts, some who were advancing the constitution of new democracies, others, who still had a long way to go. In Poland and Hungary, a new stability was already apparent, while in Leningrad there had been little change. In Sofia, a week before I arrived, the Communist Party headquarters across the street from my hotel had burned down. I spent part of my time with an opposition group in a demonstration for democratic change. In Bucharest, I saw the militia brutally beating people on Victory Square. I had no understanding of who was being brutalized and why they were being attacked. It was a tough trip.
My last stop was Leningrad, an odd stay where I went to explore the possibility of developing a cooperative relationship with a group purporting to be an independent institution of higher learning. Two representatives of the group had approached, through a State Department contact, the New School president, Jonathan Fanton. We had initial discussions in New York, which raised some doubts about the real standing of this endeavor. I went to Leningrad to check things out, quickly discovering that they were charlatans. But I had to hang around for two days, giving lectures that the two were using to enhance their local authority, meeting very interesting people at the Academy of Sciences under very strange circumstances. A number of them gave me letters and parcels to send to American colleagues, thus, avoiding the Soviet censors. As an old Soviet bloc veteran, this was completely normal, contrasting the continuation of Soviet ways with the rapid changes occurring in Central Europe.
My departure was on Aeroflot to Stockholm and from there on American Airlines to New York. U.S. carriers were then under a terrorist alert in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing, coupled with the fear of rogue terrorists. Because of this, there was an additional security review before entering the waiting room for American flights. When the security guards reviewed my passport, I was taken to another room and an interrogation began. I fit a profile. I look Jewish, but also vaguely Middle Eastern, Mediterranean. I was traveling over an eight week period around the region, saturated with suspected rogue terrorists. Over the past ten years I had been in and out of the region, particularly in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, actually as an observer and collaborator of the democratic oppositions, but the quick review of my passport, of course, didn’t reveal that. The questioning went on for about an hour. For forty-five minutes, I was a suspected terrorist. But my answers to their questions made sense and as the questioning proceeded the tone changed. They became more interested in who I met, whether I was inadvertently carrying a package that might be dangerous. Because I had the Russian letters and packages, the flight was delayed to do a thorough examination of my luggage.
That settled, the rest of my flight home was a pleasure. The security officials apologized for the inconvenience they caused me. My seat was upgraded from coach to business class. Even during the interrogation, I was at all points treated with courtesy. And I have often wondered since 9/11 why all profile searches couldn’t be conducted in this fashion. Search, verify, respect, and compensate for the inconvenience.