Flying the Paranoid Skies
An Essay by Alfred Lubrano

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Oct. 7, 2001 -- I took the travel agent-in-chief's advice and hopped a plane to Boston to see what it's like in the skies. I can report that things are uneasy up there.

My airline had announced 11,000 layoffs, and it showed. Just two people worked the ticket counter, causing a three-hour wait. Then I walked through heightened security onto a plane of jittery passengers.

We boarded in silence, just 35 people. Things seemed edgy from the start. Before takeoff, a passenger pointed out a plastic knife under a seat. People stared in transfixed dismay. A flight attendant swiftly grabbed it.

Then another mini crisis. Someone had left a black briefcase in an overhead bin that no one near it claimed. A flight attendant, his face pale, held the thing in his arms straight out in front of him, away from his body. He slowly walked the aisle, asking who owned it. Finally a man at mid-cabin said it was his, and we were under way.

The woman next to me saw me write the word "plane" in my reporter's notebook and demanded to know who I was. Another heard the conversation, eyed my dark beard and asked me my nationality. I told her I was from Brooklyn.

At Logan Airport, things only got worse. Without meaning to, I managed to ratchet up the paranoia. After passing through security to get to my return flight, I turned around 20 feet beyond the x-ray machines to scan the scene and count law enforcement officers. That's part of the reporter's job.

But this was way too suspicious. Within seconds, US marshals in black commando gear surrounded me. "Where's your picture ID? What county in Jersey do you live in? How do you pronounce your last name?" They let me go, finally, after a humiliating few minutes.

Racial profiling, tense passengers, epic lines -- flying is anything but normal now. It's like the terrorists are still in charge of the skies, still inspiring fear. You give up control if you fly scared, searching every passenger for the face of a terrorist, hunting forever for Mohamed Atta's lifeless eyes.

"We shouldn't let it happen," passenger Brian Walters told me. "If you always have fear, you'll never leave the house," he said, "and we've got to go on with life."

Alfred Lubrano writes for the Philadelphia Enquirer.