by Pat Holt
Friday, November 9, 2001
THANK YOU, SKEPTICAL READERS
Since last week, when I wrote about urban legends and Internet hoaxes (#278), more readers have written to ask about that story in #275 about the Philadelphia man who was stopped twice from boarding his United Airlines flight and eventually escorted out of the airport.
These readers find it hard to believe that the only reason the man was prohibited from flying was that he carried a paperback novel called "Hayduke Lives!" whose cover illustration shows a man's hand holding sticks of dynamite and a clock.
Surely, they ask, this story is one of those hoaxes on the Internet that get emailed around because because they reflect our many fears about modern life.
My response was to direct the first reader to the article I quoted in the Philadelphia City Paper at http://www.citypaper.net/articles/101801/news.godfrey.shtml and to note that this alternative weekly, founded more than 10 years ago, was a reliable and respected newspaper.
But then as more queries came in, I noticed a few odd facts in the story: The police had not filed an incident report; a United Airlines spokesman said he was "unaware" of the problem; UAL's supervisor of operations said he was "not allowed to comment" on security matters; and the security company running the checkpoints "denied responsibility for detaining" the man.
So here we have either a true story that can't be verified because every security and law enforcement is sweeping it under the rug; or one of these awful post-9/11 hoaxes that could, starting with the Philadelphia City Paper and aided by that First Amendment zealot Holt Uncensored, turn into a rip-roaring urban legend.
Well, it took only a little digging to find that at least we don't have to deal with the Friend of the Friend (FOAF) who's usually the "source" of urban legends but the one person nobody ever gets to talk to directly.
In this case the man who was prohibited from flying, Neil Godfrey, was glad to talk to me on the phone and confirm all events from his point of view; as was Gwen Shaffer, the then reporter for the Philadelphia City Paper (she's moved on to TV news) who wrote the article; as was Ryan Godfrey, Neil's brother and the webmaster at City Paper, who tipped Gwen to the potential of the event to begin with.
But since there was no police report, and officials had refused to "comment on security matters," I knew what was needed to pin the story down was some kind of physical statement or evidence.
And something of that nature did turn up, thanks to Neil Godfrey's parents, Amy and Dennis. They were waiting in Arizona for Neil's flight to arrive and were becoming increasingly frustrated each time he was stopped from boarding and sent home.
The first time, Amy Godfrey called United herself to see if she could straighten matters out and was assured that Neil was "not banned from ever flying again," according to a UAL reservations clerk. Relieved, she made arrangements with the clerk for Neil to fly out on the next flight.
However, once he returned to the airport, Neil was recognized by a police officer, stopped by a National Guardsman, taken to a private interrogation room and patted down, his book (this time a Harry Potter novel) again confiscated and studied. This time he was told he could not fly - no reason given - but was told a contact number he could call for explanation.
That number rang forever, so Neil's dad, Dennis, called United Airlines reservations services and, bless him, created a complete transcript of the conversation, which he emailed to Neil and Neil emailed to me.
In it, Barbara Green, who identifies herself as a UAL supervisor in Chicago, states that "Hayduke Lives!" made Neil suspect not only because of the cover illustration but because "it was a book about . . . instructions on how to make a bomb." Further, when interviewed by the UAL station manager at the airport, Neil "made a joke of it" and said that "he was looking into it" - i.e., how to make a bomb.
"To even say the word in an airport is a federal offense," Barbara Green tells Dennis Godfrey. "He could have been arrested by the FBI."
Indeed, just to verify that, let's skip forward to November 6, when a U.S. Airways pilot who was stopped for carrying nail clippers at the Philadelphia airport and joked, "I don't know why you are concerned with nail clippers. I've got a gun in my bag in Operations."
That incident "sparked the evacuation Saturday of about 1,000 people at Terminal B, a US Airways terminal." Police and the FBI are searching for the pilot, who had disappeared in the crowds and now "may face federal charges."
Another pilot "refused to remove his hat" during security clearance on October 13 and, says the Inquirer. When asked by police "to cooperate with the checkpoint operators ... [he] called the officer an obscene word. At that point, [he] was arrested."
So we can assume that if Neil Godfrey had joked about the bomb during his "Hayduke Lives!" interrogations, he wouldn't have simply been kicked out of the airport - he would most probably have been arrested and taken to jail.
Did Neil Godfrey joke about a bomb? "Absolutely not," he said on the phone yesterday. "Even if I had wanted to joke about it, which I didn't, I knew they'd arrest anybody who made jokes like that. There are signs all over the airport warning you what will happen."
So I'm pretty convinced that this story is true, and that there's a lesson here for the airlines, the government and their security companies - that is to give out clearer and more precises guidelines to the people who control security checkpoints, and seek better coordination.
Neil's experience may be an example of too many agencies (in this case, Philadelphia police officers, Pennsylvania State Troopers, airport security officials and the National Guard) stumbling over one another in confusion over which job belonged to which agency and at what stage. Time after time, Neil was cleared for boarding by one person, only to be stopped and interrogated by another, until he was denied boarding and escorted out of the airport.
Perhaps the more important lesson is this: Unless hollowed-out for nefarious purposes, books should not be a reason to detain or prohibit passengers for security reasons.
One can't blame security workers at any airport for reacting too quickly and without guidance. They've been blamed for everything from napping on the job to conspiring with perpetrators. Many of them are still low-paid and poorly trained, and they're "freaked out," as Neil would say.
But isn't that all the more reason not to panic over a book? Read on.
IS THIS A TREND? ANOTHER BOOK STOPS A PASSENGER
This story comes from the Independent, the British newspaper, and is written by the detainee himself, the distinguished Saudi Arabian author Tarik Ali ("The Book of Saladin," "The Stone Woman") at http://argument.independent.co.uk/commentators/story.jsp?story=102144.
On October 29, Ali was walking through security clearance at the airport in Munich, Germany, when a worker searching his handbag "brushed aside" a few books but "grasped eagerly" a slim volume by Karl Marx, "On Suicide," and "rushed it over to the armed policeman" nearby.
The reference to suicide got the two officials "really excited," Ali writes. "They barely registered the author, though when they did, real panic set in and there were agitated exchanges."
Ali's passport and boarding card were confiscated, and he was taken to police headquarters at the airport. "On the way there, the arresting officer gave me a triumphant smile. 'After 11 September, you can't travel with books like this,' he said. 'In that case,' I replied, perhaps you should stop publishing them in Germany, or better still, burn them in public view.' "
Ali might have been detained and arrested had he not demanded to make a phone call. When asked to name the person he wanted to call, Ali, his "patience evaporated," told the police, "The Mayor of Munich," and added: "His name is Christian Ude. He interviewed me about my books and the present crisis on Friday evening at Hugendubel's bookshop. I wish to inform him of what is taking place."
This seemed to be enough to change the complexion of the case, and Ali was given a police escort to his flight. The whole thing, he now believes, "was a trivial enough episode, but indicative of the mood [in the government]. . . that rules Germany today."
In what sounds like a parallel to the Bush/Ashcroft position today, Ali writes: "While Chancellor Gerhard Schroder was in Pakistan insisting that there could be no pause in the bombing and that the war of attrition would continue, his Minister for the Interior, Otto Schily, was busy masterminding the new security laws, which threaten traditional civil liberties."
Among the proposals discussed by Schily "is granting jurisdiction to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the German equivalent of the FBI) so that it has the right to spy on individuals it suspects of working against the 'causes of international understanding or the peaceful coexistence of nations.'
"And since - in the debased coinage of the present - 'peaceful coexistence of nations' includes waging war against some of them, I suppose that my experience was a dress rehearsal for what is yet to come.
"It was a tiny enough scratch," Ali concludes, "but, if untreated, these can lead to gangrene."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here is my reply to Mr. Isenberg, who wrote in response to my letter [about the anti-gay message written on a U.S. Navy bomb headed for Afghanistan - see #279]:
My letter, as Mr. Isenberg will see if he rereads the first paragraph, was meant to address, not the actions of a member of the military, but the characterization of this incident as no big deal, or, in Mr. Isenberg's words, as "Much Ado About Nothing." I wrote from my personal perspective, because often we dismiss things as "no big deal" when we don't really understand how they impact other people. I never expected my message to move, or even to reach, the American government or the military, but I'm sorry that it failed to move Mr. Isenberg.
I doubt that many Americans are aware of any of the things I mentioned--that gays and lesbians are often retained by the military in wartime only to be discharged as unfit to serve when the war is over, that the INS regularly tears apart gay and lesbian families, that gay and lesbian spouses of the victims of September 11th will face difficulties that their heterosexual counterparts will never have to think about. If Americans were aware of these things, I would hope they would see the fundamental injustice in the way this country treats its gay and lesbian citizens.
Since Mr. Isenberg has addressed several questions to me, I would like to respond to them, even though they were probably rhetorical.
Mr. Isenberg asks, "what exactly does she want done?"
I want hate speech named and recognized for what it is, and I think GLAAD was right to protest the immediate withdrawal of the photo from public view for the reasons they stated.
Mr. Isenberg asks, "when a Jew hater defaces a synagogue with Nazi swastikas -- which are shown in all their infamy on the nightly news -- should we assume that the media hates all Jews?"
I don't believe, as I think Mr. Isenberg implies, that the public display of the "FAGS" photo has been interpreted by gays and lesbians as meaning that the media hates homosexuals. I think the media just didn't think about it. I think the Navy, which released the photo, didn't think about it, and I think whoever first sent it over the AP wire service didn't think about it. Once it had appeared, someone *did* think about it, and it should have prompted the rest of us to think about it.
Mr. Isenberg asks, "And how does Ms. Wilson know that nobody else has written a racial, religious, or other epithet."
Would someone write "nigger" on a bomb when he or she serves with African-Americans? Would someone write "kike" on a bomb when he or she serves with Jews? Would someone write "bitch" on a bomb when he serves with women? Perhaps someone would, and I imagine that he or she would hear about it. But when someone writes "FAGS" on a bomb, who of their fellow service members would protest? The people who are insulted by it are not supposed to tell. Who else would dare speak up for them? I believe the American people should speak up for them, and that's why I spoke up for them.
Mr. Isenberg asks, "Do you think we might deal with the threat of Al Qaeda and anthrax before opening up a third front on the civil rights battlefield?"
In every war America has fought, we have proclaimed that we were fighting, not just for our survival as a nation, but for our liberties and our ideals. That's why we are currently debating how to balance wartime necessity with maintaining our civil liberties. That's why our government has assured us that, even in wartime, it will vigorously prosecute hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims. Our brave words about our way of life ring hollow if we violate our principles because we are at war.
It seems to me that those of us who are not actively involved in dealing with the threat of Al-Qaeda or anthrax can contribute to the war effort by being the people we say we are, people who believe in liberty and justice for all.
Catherine M. Wilson
Dear Holt Uncensored:
At http://fictionwise.com/home.html are e-books of a decent grade (usually reprints of paper-published short stories or novels), offered for prices that make purchasing more appealing than piracy. Some of the short stories are cheaper than a candy bar or a package of gum. Lots of out of print stuff by beloved authors. Granted, not everyone likes reading off a LCD screen but this is going to be very good for readers who do. And no obvious way for small bookstores to get in on the sales.
[As to the letter about the financial struggles of Adventures in Crime and Space] I heard from friends in Austin, Texas, that Adventures in Crime and Space got local news coverage as well as netted word-of-mouth (word of keyboard?). Their customers have rallied to the point that they're in no more financial trouble than any other small business in Austin. I had passed your article on to a mailing list or so. I've been there, and it's a nice store.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About the World War II potato starch bombs [#279] ...Evelyn Iritani's book "An Ocean Between Us" (out of print I think but still easy to find) has a great story about a meeting between those who as Japanese children made the bombs and survivors of those killed by them. One of the Japanese men responsible felt that an apology was in order and after many years made sure it happened. Yet another small model for us that reconciliation - not revenge - is the way to peace.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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