Once upon a time and long, long ago, I was taking a flight from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to San Francisco. I was flying on TWA, my airline of choice, and this was in the heady era when you could show up half an hour before your flight and still make it. I, of course, could not do this, because I mysteriously have an FBI red flag. I had been conditioned to show up at the airport two hours early so that the the personnel could amuse themselves rooting through my luggage, searching me, and asking me probing questions about my destination.
I checked most of my baggage at the counter, and strode gamely forth to security with my laptop over my shoulder and a small carryon. These were the days when you could ask that your laptop not be x-rayed, and a member of the security crew took my laptop to swab for bomb traces while the rest of my luggage and my shoes were x-rayed. I stood by while a woman pawed through my backpack, taking note that I was reading Animal Liberation and Guns, Germs, and Steel while I waited for them to finish swabbing my laptop.
The man doing the swabbing ran the swab through the machine and frowned before getting another security person to repeat the test. The second man frowned, and used his radio, and I noticed a subtle change in the undercurrents around me, from bored security personnel harassing an academic to law enforcement gone onto full alert.
“Er,” I said, gathering up my inhalers and stuffing them back into my backpack, “is something wrong.”
“Just a moment,” the first swabber said, “please stand back.”
“Oh, ok,” I said, obediently waiting next to the security line with a foolish expression while I watched people go through, starting to glance at me curiously as security people gathered around me.
“This laptop appears to be covered in nitroglycerin,” the security man finally said.
“Oh, really? How interesting.”
This was apparently not the desired response, because he started glaring at me and I realized that there were rather a lot of people with guns around, all of a sudden.
“Er, I don’t really know how that could have happened. I mean, it’s probably residue from medication or something,” I suggested.
The men with guns conferenced, glancing at my multi-hued hair and sheepish expression occasionally. Finally, one of them walked over and said that I was going to have to boot the laptop to prove that it wasn’t a bomb. This seemed reasonable, and I reached for the case to unzip it.
“No,” he said, “we’re going to take you somewhere else in the airport to do it.”
With a sudden chill, I realized that they really did think I was carrying a bomb, especially when they took me into a small subterranean room with a thick glass window. I was directed to boot the laptop with the screen facing the window after they had taken up positions behind it. Amused and somewhat terrified by the turn things had taken, I duly waited until they had lined up behind the window, opened the case, and booted the laptop. It hummed for a moment before the familiar Windows logo popped up, satisfying the men behind the window, who came back in to fetch me and drop me off at my gate, apologizing for the “inconvenience, but we can’t be too careful, you know.”
“Oh, I know,” I said. “But, I mean, if it was really a bomb, it would have made more sense to make it react to the initialization of a specific program. So that, you know, it would behave like a real lap top.”
With that comment, I was politely asked to leave JFK airport and never, under any circumstances, to return. Fortunately, TWA is a surprisingly accommodating airline, and they cheerfully re-routed my flight to Boston without asking too many questions, allowing me to visit an old friend before leaving the East Coast. The incident faded into distant memory, since I am still allowed into LaGuardia, but it just goes to show you that security personnel took things far too seriously long before the 11 September incident. I mean, really, would any bomber in his or her right mind proceed to tell airport personnel how they would rig a laptop bomb after successfully passing airport security? Seriously.