Saturday, February 6, 2010

In between editing the 100-plus page of prehospital emergency protocols that were written in, admittedly, impressive, but not close to perfect, English, on the long, long flight from Tel Aviv to Newark, I managed to watch all of the Jason Bourne CIA assassin movies. Watching all three in a row made for a nice distraction from repeated exhortations to place cervical colors on all patients, and naturally, I began to compare in what ways we were similar. Over the past few years I’ve been to some of the same jet-setting places, Munich, Switzerland, India, Moscow… getting in bloodletting fights (mostly with administrators for me) leaves my hands shaking and knuckles… I even have two passports, both issued by the federal government. So I’d be feeling like a globe-trotting super-spy if it hadn’t have been for the humiliation I’d received at Tel Aviv’s airport.

It began even before I got to the airport itself; a soldier, who looked about 17, pulled our vehicle aside for extra screening. Shuffling their feet out in the cold, Ishaq and Abed commented, “it’s because we have East Jerusalem IDs,” wry smiles of apology on their faces. The teenage soldier escorts me to one of those nondescript rooms with x-ray equipment and another bored kid wipes my belongings down with a wand to detect explosives. When the soldier finds out what time my flight is, his eyebrows arch for a second, and then he says, almost, but not quite apologetically, “I will give you a pamphlet that you can show the security inside the airport to help expedite you.” He drops one of the driver’s phones when handing them back, no apology.

Since I am a lone male traveler, in the airport I am labeled the highest security risk, a level 6, and receive what is essentially the most invasive security examination. “Where did you stay while you were in Israel, what did you do, you were in the West Bank, did you go to Gaza?” One snort can’t convey how ridiculous that suggestion is – I may be stupid but I’m not crazy enough to go to Gaza. The screening personnel are always unfailingly polite, please, sir, open your bag, have a seat here, feeble attempts at maintaining the illusion that your dignity is preserved while they make you do a slow, security strip-tease, wristwatch removed, shoes doffed, pockets emptied, even my wedding ring needs to come off before I walk slowly through the metal detector for them. Putting my belt back through the loops of my pants after the security never fails to make me feel cheap, sorry I gotta run off with my metal detector, I got business. Security at that airport is like rape only without the foreplay.

All of this treatment despite the fact that (or, menacingly, because) I’m a citizen of America, Israel’s unfailing ally, provider of all of the weapons that I see slung around the necks of their barely-adult soldiers standing around the checkpoints. I wonder how much more difficult it must be for those other aliens standing around the airport, heads covered, presumed guilty before proof of innocence by submission to the airport security protocols. Making people out to be “others” and not human is what let the Holocaust happen in a place that had been known for blandly pleasant clockmakers; humanizing empathy apparently costs too much.

It’s funny, what the straw for me was: a headphone earpiece. A triviality. Remember: I am a nerd, a compulsive one, and being able to pack all of my electronica with safe efficiency isn’t just something I take pride in, it organizes my psyche. When the security officer escorted me back to the screening area where the clever workers had pulled out every single piece of my gear out on to a table for all to mangle, he said, as though it were a gesture of magnanimity, “see, they have already re-packed your bag.” I began to fume. Quietly seething, I unpacked the uncaringly jumbled mess and began to rewind cords, re-sort compartments, trying to get their psychic urine off my belongings, because that’s what it was, they had pissed all over my stuff. It was then that I discovered that one of the earpieces of my headphones had popped off and was missing. Not the most expensive, but not the cheap ones that come in a plastic baggy with your airplane peanuts, I had traveled hither, thither and yon with these headphones without having lost one of the little earpieces that ensured a proper fit, and some bored teenaged kid had managed to do it while mishandling my gear.

And then imagine, it isn’t a headset, it’s your pregnant wife, your gasping father, your cold, blue child, and you’re forced to sit on the ground and wait at gunpoint because of disagreements that people you don’t know and care nothing of have had. Or if you had watched your sister, mother, aunts, separated from you into another boxcar heading for another place that smoke comes from. Forcing open a clenched fist makes for a pretty crappy handshake, and you wonder to yourself when it’ll get better, and think that it’s going to take a measure of self-dignity that extends far, far beyond the loss of a rubber earpiece.

Maybe I can see if I’m more like Jack Bauer.