The Blog

Fear of Flying?

No. It's a fear of airports.

12:00 AM, Oct 10, 2007 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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LAST MONTH IT was reported that a 54-year-old veteran FBI official, Carl L. Spicocchi, had been jailed in Arlington County several weeks earlier for abducting, holding and physically assaulting his girlfriend. Specifically he is accused of dragging her around by the hair inside of her apartment, physically striking her, and threatening to kill her alternatively with both a knife and his handgun--all over a period of six hours. It appeared that as a result of this incident he was probably looking at some jail time (as of a hearing last week when he was denied bond for a second time he had been behind bars over a month) and his FBI career could well be finished.

The incident took place on 23 August, but was kept under wraps by local and federal law enforcement for three weeks until it was reported in the Washington Post on 13 September--having only been made public knowledge because of his first court hearing. If the descriptions sworn to in court are accurate, Spicocchi's actions are egregious no matter who might have committed them. But they deserve particular condemnation when they are the actions of a federal agent who is supposed to be using his training and right to carry firearms to decrease the level of violent crime rather than contributing to it.

My cynical comment to the Post blog at that time was that if Spicocchi had committed all of these abusive acts against an ordinary citizen while inside of an airport he could have gotten away with it all and more--even murder--and would not have suffered the slightest punishment or judicial process. He might have even received a commendation, I thought acidly at the time.

These observations may seem slightly exaggerated and, yes, they are indeed the product of the frustration that comes with the increasingly agonizing experience of being a regular air traveler. I do a tremendous amount of flying commercially, most of it internationally, and there is almost nothing about air travel that promises the convenience and relaxation it had many years ago. But, beyond all of this unpleasantness it is today painfully obvious that an air passenger--once inside the confines of an airport in any part of the world--has no rights whatsoever.

This includes not even the right to be protected from security and law enforcement personnel who do not seem to understand any force other than deadly force. Security, police, and passenger screening personnel in any airport have near-dictatorial powers and almost limitless discretion to decide who needs to be put into a chokehold and thrown into a windowless room until someone can decided what set of ridiculously overblown charges need to be leveled against them.

A case in point being the 42-year-old female Secret Service agent, Monica Emmerson, who this past June was threatened with arrest and surrounded by a phalanx of Transportation Security Agency (TSA) officers for the heinous crime of having spilled on the floor at Reagan National Airport ordinary drinking water from her 19-month-old toddler's sippy cup. One website commenting on the incident stated that "I guess because they didn't beat her to a pulp, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) claims that its 'Officers' did not 'Hassle Female Passenger with Toddler at Reagan National Airport over Sippy Cup.' Perhaps the agency needs a dictionary with 'hassle' defined in one-syllable words that even its cretins can understand."

Now, I thought this was all a bit harsh, but little did I realize how spot-on some of these comments by myself and others would turn out to be. Specifically, I refer to the incident at Phoenix airport that led to the death of Carol Gotbaum on 30 September. The 45-year-old mother of three was late for a flight to Tuscon and when she demanded to be let on board the airplane, which had not yet pulled away from the gate, she was manhandled to the ground and handcuffed--all the while screaming "I am not a terrorist. I am not a criminal. I am a sick mother. I need help." What she got was the kind of help that I used to receive as a freshman during college fraternity hell week.

Law enforcement officials contend that she was out of control and had to be restrained but witnesses interviewed by the family's attorney, Michael C. Manning, tell a different story that seems like a script from a T.J. Hooker episode. According to accounts in the New York Times "the police approached her, according to witnesses, made no effort to speak to her, calm her or assess the situation Two of them immediately took her to the ground." Gotbaum was taken off to a holding cell and left alone with her hands cuffed behind her back while she screamed to be released.