Security in the Age of Terror: Part 2. A Personal Account

Security in the Age of Terror: Part 1. The Political Paradigm

First Encounters: US customs in Canada

The first time I traveled to the US after September eleventh was in May 2003. My husband was attending a conference in San Francisco and thought that a short holiday at this time of year under the californian sun was mandatory after a long Canadian winter !

He left two days before me. He is always late wherever he goes and he arrived just half an hour before the flight was due to leave. I am an anxious person and with all the after 9/11 security measures I thought he was not going to make it. But he wasn't home few hours later and I assumed that he made it to the plane at time.

For this trip à deux with my husband, I had arranged for the children staying alone, my daughter was 18 at the time. When I arrive at the US customs at Pierre Trudeau Airport in Montréal two days later, I am an hour early with an onboard light luggage. The US customs are at all Canadian airports so every person traveling from Canada to the US is checked at departure. I present my Canadian passport and I am asked if I had travelled before to the US with another citizenship. I explain that until we acquired the Canadian citizenship, we used to travel to the US with our French passports. They ask why the visas attached to the French passports were not returned to the US customs last time I traveled to the US, it was in 1998. First I don't realise what they were talking about then I remember that after each one of our land travels to the US, and there were at least two per year between 1991 and 1998, when on our way back, we used to stop only at Canadian customs and I remember that nobody had asked us to return these visas because most of the time they were given for three months and our stay in the US was always between one and two weeks. It came to my mind that we threw these cards in the garbage when they were no longer valid !

I say that we didn't know we had to return them and that in my many travels to the US it is the first time this is actually a problem !

The officer says that according to their computers it looks like I have never left the US. He decides to refer me to his superior. I am transfered to a secondary area at the airport. When I arrive at the secondary area I am preoccupied by one thought: Why didn't my husband face the same problem when he left two days ago ? But there I see only people like me, Moroccans, Algerians... Arabs ! I understand the bias (my husband is European) and when the 'superior' arrives, my blood is boiling in my veins ! He and I repeat the same questions and answers over and over again.

I finally offer to give proof that during this time I was living in Canada and not as an alien citizen in the US. I feel the need to say more: ''Look sir, I am indignated, my husband who is in the same situation crossed your customs two days ago without being interrogated.'' He is very curteous but becomes red faced when I mention the fact, he says: ''Look, we are not going to make a problem out of this but my advice to you is this: next time you travel to the US you take with you your Canadian tax documents proving that during all this time, between 1998 and 2003, you lived in Canada.'' I am however upset and I say: ''I undertsand that there is some bias here (I don't say 'racial' but I turn my head towards the people who were waiting like me in the secondary area). I was always welcome in your country but right now it does not seem that this is the case. I have two children and a dog waiting for me at home. Your assurances are not enough for me right now. I ask you if you forsee any problems for my stay in your country I'd better return home and not board this plane !''

He assures me that there will no problem for me whatsoever and wishes me a good trip. When I arrive at San Francisco after a plane change at Chicago O'Hare I am shaken despite the fact that the customs and immigration officer was polite and curteous and that I could have faced a nastier person.

Only one thing obsesses me: I was singled out because of my name, my skin or my origins or probably all at the same time.

It was Orange Alert in the US, the week during which Bush famously boarded a US Navy ship on the Californian coast to declare to Americans 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq.

The beauty of the country, which I was discovering for the first time, made me forget the incident but when I boarded the plane back to Montreal, the Alert, which was lowered for few days, was Orange again ! It was the time of the shoebomber obsession at Airports and there were huge delays at San Francisco Airport with people taking off most of their clothes and their shoes at boarding gates.

My next two trips to the US by Air will look exactly the same with less focusing on the shoes but more focusing on the 'close search', the search they perform with the hands inside your underwear. Needless to say that having the features of a middle eastern, I am always 'randomly' searched. From indignation, I developped some tolerance to this kind of search, which is humiliating, due to an active denial that someone is actually searching my underwear with an exception when last spring at la Guardia I see an elderly woman screaming at the women officers who were 'closesearching' her so I tell my husband who always asks me to be calm in such situations: ''Next time I am going to scream like her''. The point is: she is white and I am not and if I scream, I will not be allowed in the plane...My husband wins. There were also exemptions, this summer at Heathrow they didn't closesearch me, they must have decided that, after all, I wasn't the most dark skinned or the most middle eastern looking...

Perceptions are a matter of context and I was surprised to realise that today's London is a cosmopolitan and multicultural city to an extent even greater than every other European or American city...This will be confirmed during our many wanderings in Europe this summer.

Security in European Airports and Train Stations, summer 2006

Montreal-Bruxelles via Paris

When we leave Canada at the end of June, I, with my son, are the focus of a close search at the airport. Since our last travel toghether, he grew older with a light beard, a teen's beard but a beard after all, he has dark hair and he is as tall as his father. They find a compass in his geometry set and take it from him claiming it is a sharp metal tool.

When we arrive at Charles De Gaulle, our walk from one terminal to another to board a train to Bruxelles is slowed by an Alert to a possible presence of a bomb...

Bruxelles-St Petersbourg:

One week later, my son staying with his grand'mother in Belgium, my husband and I board a plane to Saint petersbourg for a one week visit of St Petersbourg and Moscou. At Zaventem, there were many Belgians from Moroccan origin leaving for their family vacations, I was not searched...

I am surprised to find little security measures in Russia except one occurrence when we are asked to show our passports when entering the train heading to Moscou at St petersbourg but this was only an adminstrative measure because a visa to Russia is only given to specific cities and places we visit and not to the whole country. During our stay there, Chamil Bassayev is declared dead. Poutine must be in seventh heaven showing his strenght to Bush and Blair who will be visiting for the G8 summit and who still have to chase their own Bin Laden...However, security was strenghtened in Russia for the G8 summit to block protests and it seems that anti-protest measures were efficient !

Our travel inside Russia is quite relaxed and it is fair to say that as visitors, and particularly in Moscou, we feel like we are traveling any city in Western Europe. However we are troubled by the perspective of having to ask for a train transit visa for Belarus and spend a whole day at the Belarus consulate or try to change our previous travel arrangements.

We had planned to travel by train between Moscou and Berlin and as this arrangement was made last minute before we left Canada, we figured out that we could arrange a transit visa on the train but we are told in Russia that we need a consulate visa for Belarus. So we spend our last day in Moscou on this in order to secure a last minute visa, the alternative is to buy plane tickets to leave Moscou and if not possible ask for an extension of our visa in Moscou, because they are given for a limited time...Our internet search about transit visa incidents the night before yielded some very worrying stories on Belarus. On the day of our departure we board the train with some apprehension...

Berlin-Moscou via Belarus and Poland.

Never take the Moscou-Berlin train even if they pay you !

The most difficult part of our travel, in many aspects, was the train between Moscou and Berlin. While the first class express train between st Petersbourg and Moscou was excellent, nice seats, and meals, movies and a real sense of comfort, this wasn't the case for the Moscou-Berlin train. The train is slow and at the frontier between Belarus and Poland, in Brest, they had to change the distance between the wheels because the rails are old in Russia on this line. Moreover, the train restaurant is so disgusting that we decide not to eat despite the fact that we don't have any food with us, only water. A Russian family living in Germany is kind enough to supply us with some tomatoes and dry soup. There is also a bad smell in the train and the furniture is not clean enough...Our compartment is considered first class in Russia but in fact it is not. The train doesn't have a first class compartment, however ours is considered as such because it is private, not shared...

The other burden is the driver who does not respect the time chart for stops at different stations and the personnel seems to be reluctant to let us leave the train to buy some food.

We arrive to Belarus around midnight but our visas will be checked only at the frontier with Poland, three hours later. We are asked to fill a declaration about the money we have and we have quite a lot (Euros and Canadian dollars) in camparison with the average traveler in the west because we thought that there was no automatic banking in Russia, just to discover that this was the country where you can find an automatic bank at every corner... My husband find it awkward to declare personal money and he declares nothing. I do the same...But when I get a terrible glance from the train worker at my paper (they collect the papers to give them to the Belarus customs) I understand that we are wrong so I ask the Russian family who are next and three dutch students who did the travel in the other direction and they all advise us to declare everything.

When we finally arrive to Brest, Belarus, the Belarus police is instantly on board. They take our passports to return them only three hours later after the train workers finish preparing the wheels. To our greatest surprise, the Belarus police is curteous and professional, no harrasment or excess of zeal, but we had our visas...And I think their anger at the people who didn't, as recounted on the internet, is justified by their will to affirm themselves as a nation separate and different from Russia.

The surprise will come to us in Poland at three o'clock in the morning, where right wing Christian zealots policemen and women could make old soviets blush in jealousy or in embarrassment or both together. They knock on the door as if they are looking for criminals, they enter our compartment four times, search under the carpet twice, scan our passports twice and order us to keep the compartment door open while we are in bed. One officer will litterally lie on my husband, his body stretched in search of something under the matress...They are rude, unpolite with no manners at all. It is, for me, the most traumatising encounter at customs...Just think that these Bush's new zealots will be part of EU...Hmmm

However the land trip between Moscou and Berlin and the dynamism we saw in Moscou as a city turned to Europe where you can pay your restaurant meal and your airport taxi in Euros, convince us that Europe is inevitably moving to the east, it is my husband's conclusion. He wondered if we will be alive when this shift will become real...

But believe me, for this shift to happen, the problem will not be Russia, neither Belarus, but definitely Christian Right wing-antisemite-Bush's and Israel's zealots in Poland...


The weather is beautiful in Berlin, the children join us the day after. We visit Berlin's eclectic museums and savour German beers with the guidance of our germanophone daughter who is studying there until the end of the summer. At one of the museums, I am asked to give my handbag, which is a nice and a small Samsonite bag designed by Philipp Starck but looks like a bagpack. I explain that this is my hand bag and it contains my belongings, passports, money, etc...The security person in charge refuses, so I tell her I need my belongings with me and she gives me a plastic bag and I angrily empty my bag into the plastic bag, cell phone, wallet, perfume, watch, ring, etc...and walk into the nicest collection of Egyptian antiquities I have ever seen. However, inside the museum I see people with bagpacks larger than my hand bag, at least two persons. These persons were 'white'. I can't wait to finish the visit and walk toward the security, my husband waiting outside praying that this will not end bitterly and spoil my day. I tell the security that I felt discriminated because I was a middle eastern woman. She tells me no and I tell her yes and give the reason for that, the other two persons with their large bagpaks inside the museum. She starts on the defensive saying that it was her boss who is responsible for this decision and I ask to see her boss and she says that he left for lunch. Oh yeh...well I am not going to spoil the day with my family so I walk away with the promise that I will write to the museum direction and to this day I didn't write...I had the same incident at the Hermitage in St Petersbourg. They were two at the security, the guy wanted to take my bag and the girl looked at him saying I guess something like this: ''What, idiot, this is a handbag !''

Anyway I guess Philipp Starck didn't think about the category ambiguity of his creation when it is a matter of security !

We leave Berlin to Paris by air. At the airport, fairly relaxed security...My husband's swiss knife forgotten in his pocket. Ouch...He starts to say goodbye to his knife when the policeman in charge takes the knife and measures it. 'You can board the plane with it' he says, 'new rules allow knives within a certain lenght'...My husband couldn't believe this. He already lost two knives exactly the same lenght at American airports...


We leave Paris by train. We are told to arrive at Gare du Nord at least half an hour earlier for security reasons. There is a jam at the security and luggages are processed quickly. British customs are also at Gare du Nord, no close search for me this time. In the train we are given cards to fill with our names, adress and other informations about our stay but nobody o n the train neither in Waterloo station will actually bother collecting these cards from us...In every city we visited there was search and security measures in museums but not in London. Every museum we visit in London, we just walk in, handbag bagpack, whatever...Moreover, London's museums are free so the visitor doesn't have to check at a cashier !

Of all European cities we visited, London seems to be the most cosmopolitan one and it is the city where the obsession of security is not obvious, unlike other cities we visited.

London-Montreal via Paris

When we leave from Heathrow, I have a brassière without metal because, according to the security personnel in Montreal, the little metal that was in my regular brassière activated the security alarm, even though I was cautious to eliminate any metal from my clothes ! Now is the test: the test is negative, the alarm is silent at Heathrow and I am not submitted to a close search. I can anyway still be submitted to a 'random' search which is performed independantly from security alarms. Although, most of the time they will ask you for a 'close' search after an alarm goes on. Ouf, I say to my husband, 'now I know what to do' to minimize the probability of those humiliating searches ! But I am mistaken. At Charles De Gaulles, we have to pass a security check despite the fact that we are in transit ! Their security alarm goes on when I cross the door ! I am called for a close search. I am fulminating and I scream : 'look I have no metal whatsoever in my clothes, I don't even have a regular brassière, I don't know how your alarm went on, I just passed Heathrow and it was O.K.' The female officer just ignores me. I suspect that sometimes they help themselves to justify their 'close search'.


The first feature of security measures are their heterogeneity in Europe and between Europe and North America. To be efficient, one needs a common algorithm. Also, more than security per se, there is no strict control of the people who enter a country, we twice filled information on board of a plane or a train and we were not asked to give this information because nobody was there to collect them ! Moreover, security measures appear to be ad hoc following recent threats or recent fears. Who can be in the mind of a terrorist ? Security measures, at least for travelers, seem to be inadequate and elusive. And racial perceptions are really a matter of relativity and can be erroneous. Perceptions are not objective. I am perceived more of a ME kind, and so a suspicious kind, where the ratio of white (Caucasians) people is important but this perception evaporates as soon as I pass a security barrier among people whose skin is darker than me or who look more ME kind or Arab than me. I am often considered as Spanish or Latin American origin, sometimes Armenian... And so are prejudices, totally non efficient when it comes to security...

I think it is more important to adress the growing insecurity at its roots, adequately try terrorrits as criminals before courts and before the law, reinforce existent criminal and security measures without inventing new hardly applicable ones, discard political discourse from the 'terrorist' arena because it is giving legitimate motives to would-be 'terror-plotters' to move to action, allow politics and politicians to do their jobs in designing immigration and foreign policies minimizing terror threats to protect their people while at the same time leaving this threat to where it belongs to the criminal and judicial spheres !


Richard said...

Sophia, I'd looked forward with interest to this post. Now, having read it, I'm very glad to say that it confirms what I thought you would find here.

(a)For all Blair's selfish posturing and 'grandstandings', the British people on the ground are thankfully more 'balanced' than almost any other Western populace.

(b) British intelligence and British security are in truth second to none. These organisations are well aware from the very top level down that much of what's happening today - is political.

That is not to say that these services are either complacement or misinformed -- they are realistic about all this. Of course there is a threat from some crazy extremists, but it NOT seen as such a big deal to a country which has just so revcently seen an end to 30 years plus, of actual terrorsim [the IRA] rather than experience of a more theoretcical type.

Overall, when a really serious threat is identified we deal with it effectively [and in a fairly low-key manner] rather than theatrically. Despite the impressions given by our politicians, for their own agenderised benefits.

Of course, I'm sure you'll soon let me know if and/or which of my personal insights/opinions you're unable to go along with.

Btw, this is another of your many marvelous pieces, btw. Please don't stop nor even ease-up on your invaluable contributions to the 'war on ignorance'.

(If there are even more 'errors' in this comment that I usually make, I'm requesting leniency -- since for the last couple of days I've been eating pain-killers like candy. Heh.)

Sophia said...

Thank you for this comment. As a matter of fact, I didn't really know what to think of the relaxed security in London, but as I read your comment, the historical context of London (IRS) comes to my mind and i think you are correct 100%. I really appreciated my stay in your Capitale.
Hope you will be well and without painkillers soon.

Sophia said...

I just came across this article on ethnic profiling in security checks

Richard said...

I think this will have some both some pluses and some minuses, Sophia.

However, like I mentioned previously, what the actual 'intelligence services' on the ground do - as opposed to the much more obvious airport operations - is vital, and tried & tested.

As with the IRA 'problem', it was eventually 'infiltration' on a large scale which so weakened that organisation that it eventually had hardly any option other than to accept the ineveitable facing it. And so, dialogue/ negotiation, etc had to be accepted by them.

If only Maggie Thatcher and others hadn't 'grandstanded' so much, the same tactics would have brought about the same eventual outcome, much much earlier.

On of the very few things I will give credit to Blair for, is for realising this and giving the 'problem' the right priorities. Of course, then he went on to seek further fame -- and fell in with Bushco -- what a mistake!

Sophia said...

I agree with you about underground operations and infiltration which are more effective than ithe inflated rethoric we see these days from our leaders and ven more effective than military operations. You don't battle terrorism with a regular army and this non sense was initiated by Bush and co in order to revitalise the inductrial military complexe after the fall of the soviet union !

Sophia said...

And now we understand better why the Bush people waged war on the CIA and the intelligence community and created a parllel intelligence network for themselves to feed their fantasies by fabricating lies !

Richard said...

* And now we understand better why the Bush people waged war on the CIA and the intelligence community ... *

Exactly, Sophia.

Elizabeth said...

I don't understand the visa incident. If you were given a visa to stay in a country, then when you leave you should be asked for it. I never heard of assuming that travelers will mail back their visas later! who does this?! It's the authorities fault if they thought you never left the U.S.--they're supposed to be keeping track of who goes in and out of the country. It's not supposed to be up to the traveler to alert them! No way should you have to carry tax documents to prove where you've been living!

Sophia said...


Until you said this I was convinced that it was our fault not having returned back these documents. Well it must be a non enforced measure until they found soemone like me to chew on...It is terrible to find ourselves in such situations, let alone extraordinary renditions and innocents who find theselves accused of whatever...
I think twe 'war on terrorism' has produced a lot of arbitrary for ordinary citizens, kafkaesque arbitrary I would say, and no results as to lowering the threat of terrorism itself...

Since March 29th 2006