Tue, 08 Mar 2005

FBI agents sniff explosives in my wife's cake

Goenawan Mohamad

On March 3, Tempo editor Bambang Harymurti and founding editor Goenawan Mohamad were in Columbia, Missouri, U.S., to receive the 2004 Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism.

2004 recipients of the medal, which has been presented by the Missouri School of Journalism since 1930, were Gloria Steinem and William Taft.

Bambang and Goenawan were invited to attend the medal presentation ceremony, together with Professor Janet Steele, author of he War Inside, in upcoming book on Tempo, the media and Soeharto's New Order regime.

Bambang and Steele left Columbia on March 4, Goenawan the next day. This is his story -- but it is not about the medal.

I had a strange incident when I was at the regional airport in Columbia, Missouri, on Saturday, March 5, 2005. It was a tiny airport, with a single check-in counter, a lounge with about 20 chairs and two vending machines.

After receiving my boarding pass from a representative of American Airlines, I took a seat and munched on a bag of peanuts I bought from the vending machine. Then I was called into the room behind the check-in counter.

An airport policeman told me that I had to be "interviewed". He said security found explosive materials in a cake I had in my luggage.

"It is TNT," the officer said.

I found this information startling and, well, comical. The history of the cake was ordinary. My wife bought a favorite cake, wrapped it up and gave it to me to deliver to her sister, who is married to an American economist and lives in Berkeley, California. In April, I will take part in a workshop with an American-Balinese gamelan group based near the university in Berkeley, and I will use this opportunity to visit my wife's sister.

How could the cake -- made of flour, eggs and raisins -- contain explosives?

But I did not protest. Expecting a comedy of errors, I agreed to be brought to the police room in the airport and wait. The policeman said I would miss my plane, but they would put me on the next flight.

"The FBI is coming to ask some questions," he said in a friendly tone.

"Please, sit down," he said when we got to the police room, adding: "You don't have anything dangerous on you, do you?"

I said no. "You can search me if you want."

He politely declined.

I asked him how they detected such a dangerous thing in my bag when other U.S. airports did not. I told him that my bag had flown from Jakarta through Taipei, Los Angeles, Dallas and St. Louis.

He did not explain. The machine here is pretty accurate, said another police officer who was not wearing a uniform. A nervous- looking person from the security company that checked the baggage at the airport came in. He also could not explain.

They tried some hypotheses. One of them said something like this happened before to some farmers who flew out of Columbia after working with fertilizer, and there was a soldier who was searched because his bag was at one point placed on some old tank ammunition. So it was possible, the plainclothes officer theorized, that my bag had either traces of fertilizer or ammunition on it.

"Did you come here by taxi?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

He said it was possible the taxi driver had carried some fertilizer in the trunk and when I put my bag in it picked up traces of the TNT.

"Do you remember the taxi company?"

"You can ask the people at the Drurry Hotel or at the Missouri School of Journalism," I said, after mentioning that I was in Columbia to receive a medal from the school, which had put me up at the Drurry Hotel and arranged all my transportation.

The plainclothes officer did not appear impressed. And he did not pursue the taxi theory any further, probably because it was plainly ridiculous; the so-called "explosive materials" were not found on the outside of my bag, but in the cake, my wife's cake.

"Maybe your wife was somewhere that was contaminated with old ammunition?"

"I don't think she was. She is not in the army."

"She's not?"

"She is the chief editor of a group of family magazines."

The man who was to question me arrived 20 minutes later. He did not introduce himself as an FBI agent. He was a stocky young man, serious, but not aggressive. After five or six questions, he got a call. To the person on the other end of the line he spelled my name, gave my date of birth and my nationality. Then he returned to me.

He looked perpetually puzzled, probably since there was no single indication that I was a terrorist. I was pretty calm, partly because I believed that at my age I would not make a credible inmate at the Guantanamo penal colony. But I could not help asking myself: "Is my name, 'Mohamad', the problem? Or is it about my country, one of the many 'unsafe places' for Americans to go?"

But they did not search my other luggage. They only opened the bag that contained my wife's cake. Inside were rumpled clothes and books, including a big book by Slavoj Zizek, which, I think, despite the author's name, contained nothing that could be described as "unusual".

After almost half an hour, the so-called "FBI" interview ended. They let me go. "Thank you for being cooperative," the young man said.

"But they may call you again," the first policeman said. "With your kind of name, you know ... and perhaps after they read what you wrote in your book."

Oh, well. In my bag they found 10 copies of my slim new book, Words, Times, a bilingual version of 11 short essays that first appeared in Tempo. Obviously they had had a quick read of the book. One of the essays is Bombers; it is about the people who bombed the cafes in Bali and the Australian Embassy. I wrote about their deadly futility.

"But this is a democratic country," I heard myself protesting. "One can write ... "

I stopped. Suddenly I was astonished by my own urge to defend my writing against any kind scrutiny by a state security apparatus -- even when the essay was harmless. Perhaps this self- defense has become a habit.

Yet, I was not angry. I took the whole story about my wife's cake as an annoying (and simultaneously amusing) stupidity. Just another symptom of American paranoia, I mumbled to myself.

My anger came afterward. After I returned to the check-in counter, (it was about 11:30 a.m.), I was told that the next flight was not until the next day. "You didn't tell me that," I protested, showing my anger to the airport's policemen.

No one apologized. And of course no one felt responsible to pay or even arrange for me to stay another night in Columbia.

"You can drive to St. Louis and catch the plane to New Orleans," Antonio, the young man at the counter, suggested.

But there was no taxi. I was the only passenger left in the lounge. The only other people were the policemen, the man at the American Airlines counter, the nervous-looking security man and the woman at the Hertz counter.

So I asked the policeman to call me a taxi. He returned empty- handed. For some reason I failed to understand the taxi driver refused to come.

"You can rent a car," the policeman said.

I did not want to drive when I was angry, but I had a limited range of choices. Either I spent the night in Columbia (with no prospect of getting a cab to take me to a downtown hotel), or else. The "else" was to go to the Hertz counter and rent a car. So I did. I rented a sedan, giving the local Hertz office a good business day, and drove for two hours to St. Louis' Lambert airport. I carefully observed the speed limit. As I expected, I got lost when I tried to find the car rental return station, and almost missed my flight to New Orleans.

But the ordeal was over.

Of course, I was US$140 poorer. Or perhaps more. During my panicky attempt to catch my plane, I lost my credit card and my cell phone.

But my wife's cake was all right. It passed through security at the St. Louis airport, as it had at every other airport in the world except the one in Columbia, Missouri.