A couple of weeks ago, I was scheduled to take a trip from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles on JetBlue. Every year, my family goes on a one-week pilgrimage, where we put our work on hold and spend time visiting temples, praying, and spending time with family and friends. To my Jewish friends, I often explain this trip as vaguely similar to the Sabbath, except we take one week of rest per year, rather than one day per week.
Our family is not Muslim, but by coincidence, this year, our trip happened to be during the last week of Ramadan.
By further coincidence, this was also the same week that I was moving out of my employer-provided temporary housing (at NYU) and moving into my new apartment. The night before my trip, I enlisted the help of two friends and we took most of my belongings, in a couple of suitcases, to my new apartment. The apartment was almost completely unfurnished - I planned on getting new furniture upon my return - so I dropped my few bags (one containing an air mattress) in the corner. Even though I hadn’t decorated the apartment yet, in accordance with Hindu custom, I taped a single photograph to the wall in my bedroom — a long-haired saint with his hands outstretched in pronam (a sign of reverence and respect).
The next morning, I packed the rest of my clothes into a suitcase and took a cab to the airport. I didn’t bother to eat breakfast, figuring I would grab some yogurt in the terminal while waiting to board.
I got in line for security at the airport and handed the agent my ID. Another agent came over and handed me a paper slip, which he said was being used to track the length of the security lines. He said, “just hand this to someone when your stuff goes through the x-ray machines, and we’ll know how long you were in line.’ I looked at the timestamp on the paper: 10:40.
When going through the security line, I opted out (as I always used to) of the millimeter wave detectors. I fly often enough, and have opted out often enough, that I was prepared for what comes next: a firm pat-down by a TSA employee wearing non-latex gloves, who uses the back of his hand when patting down the inside of the thighs.
After the pat-down, the TSA agent swabbed his hands with some cotton-like material and put the swab in the machine that supposedly checks for explosive residue. The machine beeped. “We’re going to need to pat you down again, this time in private,” the agent said.
Having been selected before for so-called “random” checks, I assumed that this was another such check.
"What do you mean, ‘in private’? Can’t we just do this out here?"
"No, this is a different kind of pat-down, and we can’t do that in public." When I asked him why this pat-down was different, he wouldn’t tell me. When I asked him specifically why he couldn’t do it in public, he said "Because it would be obscene."
Naturally, I balked at the thought of going somewhere behind closed doors where a person I just met was going to touch me in “obscene” ways. I didn’t know at the time (and the agent never bothered to tell me) that the TSA has a policy that requires two agents to be present during every private pat-down. I’m not sure if that would make me feel more or less comfortable.
Noticing my hesitation, the agent offered to have his supervisor explain the procedure in more detail. He brought over his supervisor, a rather harried man who, instead of explaining the pat-down to me, rather rudely explained to me that I could either submit immediately to a pat-down behind closed-doors, or he could call the police.
At this point, I didn’t mind having to leave the secure area and go back through security again (this time not opting out of the machines), but I didn’t particularly want to get the cops involved. I told him, “Okay, fine, I’ll leave”.
"You can’t leave here."
"Are you detaining me, then?" I’ve been through enough "know your rights" training to know how to handle police searches; however, TSA agents are not law enforcement officials. Technically, they don’t even have the right to detain you against your will.
"We’re not detaining you. You just can’t leave." My jaw dropped.
"Either you’re detaining me, or I’m free to go. Which one is it?" I asked.
He glanced for a moment at my backpack, then snatched it out of the conveyor belt. “Okay,” he said. “You can leave, but I’m keeping your bag.”
I was speechless. My bag had both my work computer and my personal computer in it. The only way for me to get it back from him would be to snatch it back, at which point he could simply claim that I had assaulted him. I was trapped.
While we waited for the police to arrive, I took my phone and quickly tried to call my parents to let them know what was happening. Unfortunately, my mom’s voicemail was full, and my dad had never even set his up.
"Hey, what’s he doing?" One of the TSA agents had noticed I was touching my phone. "It’s probably fine; he’s leaving anyway," another said.
The cops arrived a few minutes later, spoke with the TSA agents for a moment, and then came over and gave me one last chance to submit to the private examination. “Otherwise, we have to escort you out of the building.” I asked him if he could be present while the TSA agent was patting me down.
"No," he explained, "because when we pat people down, it’s to lock them up."
I only realized the significance of that explanation later. At this point, I didn’t particularly want to miss my flight. Foolishly, I said, “Fine, I’ll do it.”
The TSA agents and police escorted me to a holding room, where they patted me down again - this time using the front of their hands as they passed down the front of my pants. While they patted me down, they asked me some basic questions.
"What’s the purpose of your travel?"
"Personal," I responded, (as opposed to business).
"Are you traveling with anybody?"
"My parents are on their way to LA right now; I’m meeting them there."
"How long is your trip?"
"What will you be doing?"
Mentally, I sighed. There wasn’t any other way I could answer this next question.
"We’ll be visiting some temples." He raised his eyebrow, and I explained that the next week was a religious holiday, and that I was traveling to LA to observe it with my family.
After patting me down, they swabbed not only their hands, but also my backpack, shoes, wallet, and belongings, and then walked out of the room to put it through the machine again. After more than five minutes, I started to wonder why they hadn’t said anything, so I asked the police officer who was guarding the door. He called over the TSA agent, who told me,
"You’re still setting off the alarm. We need to call the explosives specialist".
I waited for about ten minutes before the specialist showed up. He walked in without a word, grabbed the bins with my possessions, and started to leave. Unlike the other agents I’d seen, he wasn’t wearing a uniform, so I was a bit taken aback.
"What’s happening?" I asked.
"I’m running it through the x-ray again," he snapped. "Because I can. And I’m going to do it again, and again, until I decide I’m done". He then asked the TSA agents whether they had patted me down. They said they had, and he just said, "Well, try again", and left the room. Again I was told to stand with my legs apart and my hands extended horizontally while they patted me down all over before stepping outside.
The explosives specialist walked back into the room and asked me why my clothes were testing positive for explosives. I told him, quite truthfully, “I don’t know.” He asked me what I had done earlier in the day.
"Well, I had to pack my suitcase, and also clean my apartment."
"I moved my stuff from my old apartment to my new one".
"What did you eat this morning?"
"Nothing," I said. Only later did I realize that this made it sound like I was fasting, when in reality, I just hadn’t had breakfast yet.
"Are you taking any medications?"
The other TSA agents stood and listened while the explosives specialist and asked every medication I had taken “recently”, both prescription and over-the-counter, and asked me to explain any medical conditions for which any prescription medicine had been prescribed. Even though I wasn’t carrying any medication on me, he still asked for my complete “recent” medical history.
"What have you touched that would cause you to test positive for certain explosives?"
"I can’t think of anything. What does it say is triggering the alarm?" I asked.
"I’m not going to tell you! It’s right here on my sheet, but I don’t have to tell you what it is!" he exclaimed, pointing at his clipboard.
I was at a loss for words. The first thing that came to my mind was, “Well, I haven’t touched any explosives, but if I don’t even know what chemical we’re talking about, I don’t know how to figure out why the tests are picking it up.”
He didn’t like this answer, so he told them to run my belongings through the x-ray machine and pat me down again, then left the room.
I glanced at my watch. Boarding would start in fifteen minutes, and I hadn’t even had anything to eat. A TSA officer in the room noticed me craning my neck to look at my watch on the table, and he said, “Don’t worry, they’ll hold the flight.”
As they patted me down for the fourth time, a female TSA agent asked me for my baggage claim ticket. I handed it to her, and she told me that a woman from JetBlue corporate security needed to ask me some questions as well. I was a bit surprised, but agreed. After the pat-down, the JetBlue representative walked in and cooly introduced herself by name.
She explained, “We have some questions for you to determine whether or not you’re permitted to fly today. Have you flown on JetBlue before?”
"Maybe about ten times," I guessed.
"Ten what? Per month?"
"No, ten times total."
She paused, then asked,
"Will you have any trouble following the instructions of the crew and flight attendants on board the flight?"
"No." I had no idea why this would even be in doubt.
"We have some female flight attendants. Would you be able to follow their instructions?"
I was almost insulted by the question, but I answered calmly, “Yes, I can do that.”
"Okay," she continued, "and will you need any special treatment during your flight? Do you need a special place to pray on board the aircraft?"
Only here did it hit me.
"No," I said with a light-hearted chuckle, trying to conceal any sign of how offensive her questions were. "Thank you for asking, but I don’t need any special treatment."
She left the room, again, leaving me alone for another ten minutes or so. When she finally returned, she told me that I had passed the TSA’s inspection. “However, based on the responses you’ve given to questions, we’re not going to permit you to fly today.”
I was shocked. “What do you mean?” were the only words I could get out.
"If you’d like, we’ll rebook you for the flight tomorrow, but you can’t take the flight this afternoon, and we’re not permitting you to rebook for any flight today."
I barely noticed the irony of the situation - that the TSA and NYPD were clearing me for takeoff, but JetBlue had decided to ground me. At this point, I could think of nothing else but how to inform my family, who were expecting me to be on the other side of the country, that I wouldn’t be meeting them for dinner after all. In the meantime, an officer entered the room and told me to continue waiting there. “We just have one more person who needs to speak with you before you go.” By then, I had already been “cleared” by the TSA and NYPD, so I couldn’t figure out why I still needed to be questioned. I asked them if I could use my phone and call my family.
"No, this will just take a couple of minutes and you’ll be on your way." The time was 12.35.
He stepped out of the room - for the first time since I had been brought into the cell, there was no NYPD officer guarding the door. Recognizing my short window of opportunity, I grabbed my phone from the table and quickly texted three of my local friends - two who live in Brooklyn, and one who lives in Nassau County - telling them that I had been detained by the TSA and that I couldn’t board my flight. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but since nobody had any intention of reading me my Miranda rights, I wanted to make sure people knew where I was.
After fifteen minutes, one of the police officers marched into the room and scolded, “You didn’t tell us you have a checked bag!” I explained that I had already handed my baggage claim ticket to a TSA agent, so I had in fact informed someone that I had a checked bag. Looking frustrated, he turned and walked out of the room, without saying anything more.
After about twenty minutes, another man walked in and introduced himself as representing the FBI. He asked me many of the same questions I had already answered multiple times - my name, my address, what I had done so far that day. etc.
He then asked, “What is your religion?”
"How religious are you? Would you describe yourself as ‘somewhat religious’ or ‘very religious’?"
I was speechless from the idea of being forced to talk about my the extent of religious beliefs to a complete stranger. “Somewhat religious”, I responded.
"How many times a day do you pray?" he asked. This time, my surprise must have registered on my face, because he quickly added, "I’m not trying to offend you; I just don’t know anything about Hinduism. For example, I know that people are fasting for Ramadan right now, but I don’t have any idea what Hindus actually do on a daily basis."
I nearly laughed at the idea of being questioned by a man who was able to admit his own ignorance on the subject matter, but I knew enough to restrain myself. The questioning continued for another few minutes. At one point, he asked me what cleaning supplies I had used that morning.
"Well, some window cleaner, disinfectant -" I started, before he cut me off.
"This is important," he said, sternly. "Be specific." I listed the specific brands that I had used.
Suddenly I remembered something: the very last thing I had done before leaving was to take the bed sheets off of my bed, as I was moving out. Since this was a dorm room, to guard against bedbugs, my dad (a physician) had given me an over-the-counter spray to spray on the mattress when I moved in, over two months previously. Was it possible that that was still active and triggering their machines?
"I also have a bedbug spray," I said. "I don’t know the name of it, but I knew it was over-the-counter, so I figured it probably contained permethrin." Permethrin is an insecticide, sold over-the-counter to kill bed bugs and lice.
"Perm-what?" He asked me to spell it.
After he wrote it down, I asked him if I could have something to drink. “I’ve been here talking for three hours at this point,” I explained. “My mouth is like sandpaper”. He refused, saying
"We’ll just be a few minutes, and then you’ll be able to go."
"Do you have any identification?" I showed him my drivers license, which still listed my old address. "You have nothing that shows your new address?” he exclaimed.
"Well, no, I only moved there on Thursday."
"What about the address before that?"
"I was only there for two months - it was temporary housing for work". I pulled my NYU ID out of my wallet. He looked at it, then a police officer in the room took it from him and walked out.
"What about any business cards that show your work address?" I mentally replayed my steps from the morning, and remembered that I had left behind my business card holder, thinking I wouldn’t need it on my trip.
"No, I left those at home."
"You have none?”
"Well, no, I’m going on vacation, so I didn’t refill them last night." He scoffed. "I always carry my cards on me, even when I’m on vacation." I had no response to that - what could I say?
"What about a direct line at work? Is there a phone number I can call where it’ll patch me straight through to your voicemail?"
"No," I tried in vain to explain. "We’re a tech company; everyone just uses their cell phones". To this day, I don’t think my company has a working landline phone in the entire office - our "main line" is a virtual assistant that just forwards calls to our cell phones. I offered to give him the name and phone number of one of our venture partners instead, which he reluctantly accepted.
Around this point, the officer who had taken my NYU ID stormed into the room.
"They put an expiration sticker on your ID, right?" I nodded. "Well then why did this ID expire in 2010?!" he accused.
I took a look at the ID and calmly pointed out that it said “August 2013” in big letters on the ID, and that the numbers “8/10” meant “August 10th, 2013”, not “August, 2010”. I added, “See, even the expiration sticker says 2013 on it above the date”. He studied the ID again for a moment, then walked out of the room again, looking a little embarrassed.
The FBI agent resumed speaking with me. “Do you have any credit cards with your name on them?” I was hesitant to hand them a credit card, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Reluctantly, I pulled out a credit card and handed it to him. “What’s the limit on it?” he said, and then, noticing that I didn’t laugh, quickly added, “That was a joke.”
He left the room, and then a series of other NYPD and TSA agents came in and started questioning me, one after the other, with the same questions that I’d already answered previously. In between, I was left alone, except for the officer guarding the door.
At one point, when I went to the door and asked the officer when I could finally get something to drink, he told me, “Just a couple more minutes. You’ll be out of here soon.”
"That’s what they said an hour ago," I complained.
"You also said a lot of things, kid," he said with a wink. "Now sit back down".
I sat back down and waited some more. Another time, I looked up and noticed that a different officer was guarding the door. By this time, I hadn’t had any food or water in almost eighteen hours. I could feel the energy draining from me, both physically and mentally, and my head was starting to spin. I went to the door and explained the situation the officer. “At the very least, I really need something to drink.”
"Is this a medical emergency? Are you going to pass out? Do we need to call an ambulance?" he asked, skeptically. His tone was almost mocking, conveying more scorn than actual concern or interest.
"No," I responded. I’m not sure why I said that. I was lightheaded enough that I certainly felt like I was going to pass out.
"Are you diabetic?"
"No," I responded.
Again he repeated the familiar refrain. “We’ll get you out of here in a few minutes.” I sat back down. I was starting to feel cold, even though I was sweating - the same way I often feel when a fever is coming on. But when I put my hand to my forehead, I felt fine.
One of the police officers who questioned me about my job was less-than-familiar with the technology field.
"What type of work do you do?"
"I work in venture capital."
"Venture Capital - is that the thing I see ads for on TV all the time?" For a moment, I was dumbfounded - what venture capital firm advertises on TV? Suddenly, it hit me.
"Oh! You’re probably thinking of Capital One Venture credit cards." I said this politely and with a straight face, but unfortunately, the other cop standing in the room burst out laughing immediately. Silently, I was shocked - somehow, this was the interrogation procedure for confirming that I actually had the job I claimed to have.
Another pair of NYPD officers walked in, and one asked me to identify some landmarks around my new apartment. One was, “When you’re facing the apartment, is the parking on the left or on the right?” I thought this was an odd question, but I answered it correctly. He whispered something in the ear of the other officer, and they both walked out.
The onslaught of NYPD agents was broken when a South Asian man with a Homeland Security badge walked in and said something that sounded unintelligible. After a second, I realized he was speaking Hindi.
"Sorry, I don’t speak Hindi."
"Oh!" he said, noticeably surprised at how "Americanized" this suspect was. We chatted for a few moments, during which time I learned that his family was Pakistani, and that he was Muslim, though he was not fasting for Ramadan. He asked me the standard repertoire of questions that I had been answering for other agents all day.
Finally, the FBI agent returned.
"How are you feeling right now?" he asked. I wasn’t sure if he was expressing genuine concern or interrogating me further, but by this point, I had very little energy left.
"A bit nauseous, and very thirsty."
"You’ll have to understand, when a person of your… background walks into here, travelling alone, and sets off our alarms, people start to get a bit nervous. I’m sure you’ve been following what’s been going on in the news recently. You’ve got people from five different branches of government all in here - we don’t do this just for fun."
He asked me to repeat some answers to questions that he’d asked me previously, looking down at his notes the whole time, then he left. Finally, two TSA agents entered the room and told me that my checked bag was outside, and that I would be escorted out to the ticketing desks, where I could see if JetBlue would refund my flight.
It was 2:20PM by the time I was finally released from custody. My entire body was shaking uncontrollably, as if I were extremely cold, even though I wasn’t. I couldn’t identify the emotion I was feeling. Surprisingly, as far as I could tell, I was shaking out of neither fear nor anger - I felt neither of those emotions at the time. The shaking motion was entirely involuntary, and I couldn’t force my limbs to be still, no matter how hard I concentrated.
In the end, JetBlue did refund my flight, but they cancelled my entire round-trip ticket. Because I had to rebook on another airline that same day, it ended up costing me about $700 more for the entire trip. Ironically, when I went to the other terminal, I was able to get through security (by walking through the millimeter wave machines) with no problem.
I spent the week in LA, where I was able to tell my family and friends about the entire ordeal. They were appalled by the treatment I had received, but happy to see me safely with them, even if several hours later.
I wish I could say that the story ended there. It almost did. I had no trouble flying back to NYC on a red-eye the next week, in the wee hours of August 12th. But when I returned home the next week, opened the door to my new apartment, and looked around the room, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the suitcases sat several inches away from the wall. I could have sworn I pushed everything to the side of the room when I left, but I told myself that I may have just forgotten, since I was in a hurry when I dropped my bags off.
When I entered my bedroom, a chill went down my spine: the photograph on my wall had vanished. I looked around the room, but in vain. My apartment was almost completely empty; there was no wardrobe it could have slipped under, even on the off-chance it had fallen.
To this day, that photograph has not turned up. I can’t think of any “rational” explanation for it. Maybe there is one. Maybe a burglar broke into my apartment by picking the front door lock and, finding nothing of monetary value, took only my picture. In order to preserve my peace-of-mind, I’ve tried to convince myself that that’s what happened, so I can sleep comfortably at night.
But no matter how I’ve tried to rationalize this in the last week and a half, nothing can block out the memory of the chilling sensation I felt that first morning, lying on my air mattress, trying to forget the image of large, uniformed men invading the sanctuary of my home in my absence, wondering when they had done it, wondering why they had done it.
In all my life, I have only felt that same chilling terror once before - on one cold night in September twelve years ago, when I huddled in bed and tried to forget the terrible events in the news that day, wondering why they they had happened, wondering whether everything would be okay ever again.