In January, I had to catch an international flight outof Montreal. As I cleared security in my socks, theguard pulled my backpack aside and asked politely ifhe could inspect its contents. I had a camera in mybag, which I knew was a suspicious item, so I noddedvaguely in his direction as I pulled my boots back on.
Although I had an inordinately difficult time with thelaces, I was puzzled to see the guard still riflingthrough my bag when I got off the floor. Surelynothing in there warranted that much attention. Theguard had placed a pile of my books beside my bag. Hewordlessly shifted one, just so I could see the title. And I suddenly realised what was taking so long.
I had had enough time and sensitivity to hide thisparticular book in my check-in baggage when I hadflown abroad for a quick trip a few weeks before. Thebook, written by a conservative apologist for globalcorporate power, was not subversive in the least. Iwas reading it in the spirit of knowing one’s enemy. But I was close to giving up — the style was dullenough to dawdle over; I was still on chapter two. This time, I had packed haphazardly, and I had simplystuffed the book into my hand baggage. The book’scover, a scene of the Seattle protests, had made itseem a lot more exciting than it was, which is why Ihad stupidly spent $30 on it.
But as I had somewhat foreseen, the picture would alsoattract the attention of authority figures. Andconsidering that he was now unabashedly reading myjournal and looking through papers I was in theprocess of writing, it had obviously captured hisimagination too. Perhaps he was curious, eager tolearn, searching out his niche in contemporary globalpolitics. Or perhaps not.
I was surprised at how intensely violated I felt thata random stranger should casually leaf through arecord of my personal life. I considered asking himnonchalantly whether he was enjoying his read,cloaking my rage in polite sarcasm. But instead, Iopted for silence: I refused to let his behaviour moveme.
Thirty, forty long seconds passed. “Where are yougoing?” he finally asked. He had broken the silence;I felt that gave me the upper hand. We spoke inFrench. I stated my friendly, non-threatening ThirdWorld destination. He asked me my business. Ilightly mentioned the project I was working on,supported by the Canadian government. Later, I wouldfeel cheap for referring to this connection, as he didseem to back off.
“Well, you should watch what you read. If guards gothrough your bags, they might take it as suspicious.” He appeared to be trying to put my writings back inorder.
“I will read what I want to read,” I replied, quietwith choked anger. I recall on some level I wasannoyed to defend a book I disliked.
“Still,” he said, “ever since September 11th, peoplemay take it badly.”
That was it. Usually, I have a policy of engagement,but after that statement, I refused to listen anymore. I zipped up my bag and stalked off, aware that he wasraising his voice as I walked away. But I heard noneof it; he had to finish his lecture to my back.
What upset me about this episode? First and foremost,the implicit connection the guard made between me andSeptember 11th wounded deeply — a cold, hard hurt. Was I involved by virtue of reading dubiousliterature? Being critical of the status quo? Or wasit just the more crass reality that I look the way Ido — male and brown? Although I find it difficult tocredit him with any nuanced sensitivity, when hisaspersions had been so crude, I try not to be pettyand call it racial bias. I’m sure myanarchist-looking white friends would have probablyreceived the same treatment, if caught in the act of(horrors) reading.
Secondly, there was the ludicrous suggestion thatsomehow a book could be a threat to aviation security. What was I going to do? Storm the cockpit andshriek, “To Damascus or I’ll read a passage out loud!” Or are we yet again at a point in history where ideashave become the threat — that some concepts make usso insecure that we attempt to stamp them out whereverpossible?
Thirdly, the guard’s grating veneer of concern for mywell-being was vaguely repulsive. Oh yes, some guardsmay take it badly, but he wasn’t, no, not at all. Hewas merely a snooping parent trying to correct themisadventures of a wayward adolescent, that’s all. Just looking out for me, wanting what was best for me,really. All the while, he continued to infringe on mypersonal space, invading parts of myself that I wouldnot even let my closest friends see.
And finally, I objected to the fact that a person moreor less my age should suddenly have the authority todictate my choices just because AÃ©roports de MontrÃ©alput a uniform on him. If we had been in a bar, at aparty, at work, we would have been equals, perhapscordial acquaintances or even friends. But because hearbitrarily wore the uniform and not I, simply becausehe was on a power trip about being on the frontlinesof the battle to protect the security of Canadians, hecould invade my privacy, insult my ability to thinkfor myself and implicitly accuse me of incitingviolence. In any other circumstance, it would havebeen roundly condemned as unacceptable. I say thateven in this circumstance it was unacceptable, but asa society, we have created a climate where it can beexcused.
But the world has moved on since that time. Theconcerns of Canada and the U.S. are beginning to divergemore and more publicly. What might have beenconstrued as deference to the collective grief andinsecurity of our neighbours is now more clearly aviolation of the basic values of decency and dignitythat we ought to stand for as a society. I have yetto fly out of a Canadian airport again, but when thetime comes, perhaps I shall launch a litmus test as tothe freedom of our skies: reading material in handbaggage or check-in? I hope I will feel secureand safe enough not to care