As it turns out, Gilbert had perfectly valid answers to both questions. An amateur aviation historian, he was studying a book about World War II-era Polish aircraft. The fanny pack contained his wallet, so he tucked it underneath the seat in front of him.
But Gilbert believes that he was singled out because he is “a 6-foot-tall, bespectacled, slightly graying, 52-year-old, 230-pound African American male with a close hair cut.” In other words, that he was the target of racial profiling.
He says that he was “totally humiliated” by the experience. “All I want to do is go from one show of mine to another and enjoy studying some history along the way,” he told me. “Is that such a crime?”
Gilbert’s interrogation, which is described in more detail on his blog (www.vancegilbert.com), may or may not have anything to do with the TSA’s new initiative. (He says that he was questioned by two police officers and at least one TSA agent; the TSA says that it wasn’t involved in any way.) But it has focused attention on the program the way nothing else has done.
TSA screeners in Boston are reportedly engaging each passenger in “casual conversation” in an effort to detect suspicious behavior. After passengers provide their boarding pass and ID, they have to answer a few questions from TSA officers. This “enhanced interaction” allows officers to better verify or dispel suspicious behavior and anomalies, according to the agency.
Agents “in no way profile based on race or ethnicity,” says TSA spokesman Greg Soule.
Of course, these so-called “chat downs” will probably invite as much criticism from passengers as the agency’s controversial full-body scans or liquid and gel limits. Why, travelers may wonder, was I singled out for a particular question? Do the TSA agents suspect me because of my previous answer, because of my skin color or because of something else?
For example, Josh Chessman believes that he was profiled for perspiring. “It took me longer to get to the airport than I had anticipated, and I ended up running in the summer heat to get to security,” says the engineer from Boston. “When I got to security, sweating quite a bit, my bags were X-rayed and I was then selected for special screening. They searched my bag somewhat thoroughly, and I had a whole bunch of new friends asking me questions like ‘Where are you going?’, ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Where are you coming from?’ ”