Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Flying the unfriendly skies

ROYAL ORR

Airport security has become an obsession with our political leaders, for obvious reasons. In Vermont they already have armed National Guards standing by the metal detectors (though better paid operators probably makes more sense). In Canada, authorities have promised to toughen up too.

I travel by plane every month or so for work and so I appreciate an extra effort to keep us safe up in the skies. Where it's all heading, nobody knows. But if we have any more hijackings over the next few months, I expect that getting on any plane in Canada may well be like an experience I had flying with El Al, the Israeli national airline.

Three years ago, I went to film a documentary in the Negev Desert in southern Israel about an Israeli-Arab woman who was working with the Bedouin people of the region. To help pay for the trip, we were also going to Gaza City to shoot some footage for an international development agency in Geneva.

I knew that El Al took security seriously. Frankly, I was glad knowing that their planes were prime targets for a host of Middle Eastern enemies. But I also suspected that my itinerary would set alarm bells clanging with airline officials, so I showed up two hours early at the ticket counter.

It was in late summer. As the other passengers gathered, I could see that they were mostly young families and teenage boys traveling (I found out later) to attend yeshiva schools in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Already, I probably looked suspicious to the ticket agent.

She took my pre-booked ticket and asked why I was going to Israel. I explained that I was a journalist working for a Canadian television program. That was enough to call the first back-up.

"Just a moment," she said and signaled down the counter.

Another unfailingly polite but tougher-looking El Al official came up. What was my business in Israel?

Again I explained what I was doing, but this time I got a bit further and mentioned Gaza City.

"Would you come with me, pleas," said the supervisor and I was led into a small cubicle behind the desk. The door was closed.

Another official joined us. We discussed Gaza for a while. Who would I be meeting? What connections did I have there? What was the focus of our filming? Where else would I be traveling?

That's when I mentioned the Negev. And the Bedouin. And then I said the name of the subject of our documentary - Amal El Sana. Her uncle is a member of the Israeli Parliament and a regular thorn in the side of the government on issues concerning Israeli citizens of Arab descent. She herself had been arrested as a teenager during the first intifada.

"Just a moment, please."

Another woman joined us and things got really serious. For almost an hour she went over my story, sometimes asking new questions, sometimes looping back. She was trying, I guess, to find out if there was anything that didn't hold up to close cross-examination. She and her partner were very, very thorough.

I understood why this was happening. Every so often, one of the officials would apologize for the time it was taking. I assured them that I saw the need for vigilance on their part.

Finally the chief interrogator wished me an icy "Bon voyage."

I made my plane with a few minutes to spare and settled down for a long trans-Atlantic flight. At the time I thought I'd had an interesting and intimidating insight into the nature of Israeli life. Now I think those two hours at Dorval airport may have been a vision of our own future as well.


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