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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
I got trapped in the Secret ‘No Fly List’
1 September 2004
I neither have the charisma of a Kennedy nor the celebrity status of Massachusetts’ senior senator Edward Kennedy. But, for the past 25 years, I do subscribe to the liberal democratic ideals for which the youngest male of the Kennedy clan [John F., Robert and Edward] had stood for in the limelight.
Thus, it is perhaps, nothing but my karma that I became a victim (like Teddy Kennedy) of the notorious ‘secret no-fly list’ maintained by the Transportation Security Administration of the American government.
First I’ll describe what happened to me on August 21st Saturday (in Nagoya, Japan) and August 24th Tuesday (in Rome). Then, I’ll express my thoughts on how I came to be trapped, since unlike Teddy Kennedy, I’m a Sri Lankan Tamil and hold the nominal Sri Lankan passport, though living beyond the borders of Sri Lanka for the past 23 years.
Disrupted Travel Schedule to Turin, Italy
The 20th International Congress of Primatology was scheduled to be held in Turin, Italy, from August 23rd to 27th of this year. Late last year, I had pre-registered to attend this Congress as a contributing participant. My poster paper presentation was scheduled for August 25th, by the congress organizers. More than 3 months ago, through my travel agent in Nagoya, I had made reservations to fly by Singapore Airlines (via the not-so direct route, of Nagoya>Singapore>Frankfurt>Turin), the last leg from Frankfurt to Turin to be completed by Lufthansa Airlines. I had paid well in advance for the ticket, and from the Italian Consulate in Osaka, received a valid short term visa for my travel.
On August 21st Saturday (the day of my departure from Nagoya to Singapore), without any premonitions to what was in store for me, I reached the Nagoya airport and tried to check in for my trip to Turin. I was rudely turned down by the Singapore Airline officials manning the counter. When I inquired about the reason, I was told by the station chief – a Singaporean named Mr.Louis Tay – that my name Sachithanantham Sri Kantha, [with my birth date, and holding the Sri Lankan passport] turns out to be in the ‘secret no-fly list’ established by the US Transportation Security Administation (TSA, hereafter) that his Airlines enforces. He couldn’t make on the spot decision, and he need to wait for information from the Singapore head office. Thus, I had to return to my residence. Late in the afternoon, I received a call from Mr.Tay, who told me that its unfortunate that I was not allowed to board the Singapore Airlines, but his personal suggestion was to check with the Japan Airlines, which do not enforce the secret no-fly list of TSA – as of now.
The International Congress of Primatology did commence on August 23rd Monday, in Turin. But, I was still in Japan. On that day, through the efforts of my travel agent, I was able to purchase a new ticket from Japan Airlines for travel on the following day, and that too only from Nagoya (via Tokyo) to Rome. My travel agent advised that, once I reach Rome, I had to decide on my travel to Turin [a distance of nearly 670 km, which by night train would take nearly 6 hours], or check my luck at the final Al Italia flight, from Rome to Turin on August 24th night, scheduled for 9:35 pm.
On August 24th, I checked in at the Japan Airlines counter [and they allowed me to travel without bothering with the secret no-fly list of TSA] and I flew from Nagoya to Rome, via Tokyo and a one hour transit stop at Moscow. I landed in the Leonardo da Vinci International airport, Rome, around 7:30 pm. I was totally unprepared for the drama which was to follow in the next 2 hours. While presenting myself at the passport control at Terminal C, the Italian officer politely inquired about my destination in Italy. I quipped, ‘Turin; I have a presentation at a conference tomorrow.’ He then asked, ‘How am I going there?’ I replied that ‘I have to purchase the flight tickets at the airport, or by train.’ He released me, without any comment. I moved to Terminal A, and purchased a round-trip ticket from Rome to Turin for nearly 142 Euros at the Al-Italia Airline ticket lobby. Then, I wrongly guessed that my period of anxiety was to end.
When I presented the newly bought Al-Italia Airline ticket for check-in, there was an undue delay in me receiving the boarding pass. The check-in clerk told me that, since I had just purchased the ticket, he had to find the seat accomodation which becomes available. I waited nervously for nearly 10 minutes. Meanwhile the check-in clerk was in contact via the hand phone continuously with a party. After waiting, I was given the boarding pass, and my big baggage was tagged to pass the X-ray check. I felt that my ordeal of landing in Turin was over, and that I could make my presentation at the Congress the following day.
When I moved to the second floor to have a quick dinner and wet my throat, I was pounced on by two plain clothes policemen. They were shouting ‘Policia- Policia’ to me. Since they were in plain clothes, and I couldn’t understand the clipped Italian phrases they were throwing at me, I mildly resisted their grabbing of my hands and the handbag.
What they could find in the handbag were the following items: 2002 edition of the Frommer’s Guidebook to Italy, a copy of V.S.Naipaul’s Literary Occasions: Essays (2004) – which I had carried for reading during flight -, my presentation materials at the Congress for the following day (Aug.25th), a plastic case in which I carried two post card size photos of my family members, details of Congress registration and my hotel reservation in Turin, and a nominal sum of currencies in Euros, US dollars and Japanese yen.
The senior-most officer, by intuition, had determined my bona-fide credentials as an academic. He ordered the junior guys to release me from hand-cuff. Then, I could drink the served cup of water. The senior-most officer then looked at me, and said that his English is not good. He followed it by asking me, why I resisted initially.
I answered him as follows: “I was unaware that the two officers who grabbed me were policemen. I would have respected the uniform, but they were in plain clothes. And also, this is my first trip to Italy; and all the guide books I read make mention of pickpockets and petty thieves at the Rome airport. So, I was wrong to think that the plain clothes policemen were pickpockets.”
He smiled softly. A little later, the police officer delivered his decision; “No problem. Professore – you have head. We are just police.” [the exact English words, which came from his mouth.] I felt that I was saved by the grace of Leonardo da Vinci’s spirit.
By then, the time for the departure of my intended flight from Rome to Turin was ticking dangerously. I was anxious to make that flight. I expressed my plight, and told the senior officer, that somehow I had to reach Turin on that 24th night. I was asked to sign five or six forms, the contents of which were Latin for me, since they were in Italian language.
One particular form had two scripts – the Sinhalese and Italian. The middle level police officer told me that I should be able to read this particular form. I responded ‘NO. I’m a Tamil, and my language is different from Sinhalese.’ My response elicited a puzzled expression from the officer. Finally, with only ten minutes to go, for the last flight from Rome to Turin to depart, the station chief ordered his two middle level subordinates (in uniform) to take me to the plane, flying to Turin. I couldn’t believe that they rushed me and my big baggage in about three minutes from Terminal C to Terminal A – right next to the plane’s boarding ladder, and I was assigned a new seat 3C.
After an hour, I landed in Turin airport, and from the airport
reached the Hotel Gran Mogol by taxi; when I settled in Room 110, it
was 30 minutes before midnight.
Exhausted by the unscripted events which occurred to me at the Rome international airport on that August 24th night, I fell sleep. But, tears from both eyes wetted the pillows also. I felt that it was a miracle that I was saved from landing in a police detention center in Rome. During my 75 minutes of ordeal, I had experienced telescoped scenarios of a Gandhian moment [in the Gandhi movie, where young Gandhi was thrown off the train in South Africa for being a non-white, though he was holding a valid ticket], a Chaplinisque moment [in the Modern Times movie, the totally unprepared Chaplin gets arrested by the police, for holding a black-red(?)- flag, which had fallen from a transport truck and cavalierly picked up by the tramp] and the ubiquitous James Bond moment [of rushing to the plane waiting in tarmac in a police vehicle].
I was also relieved that the top police officer at the Rome International airport respected my bona fide credentials, based on my word and the available documents I carried. His soothing words in accented English, ‘Professore – you have head. We are just police’ was a balm to my hurt and embarrassed feelings. In hindsight, I feel that I did use my ‘head’. He also used his ‘head’. While under unexpected pressure, I instinctively avoided physical or verbal abuse against the two plain clothes policemen who grabbed me. On that particular occasion, this avoidance saved me from serious trouble.
Simultaneously, the top police officer also used his ‘head’ – unlike the jerks manning the Singapore Airlines - in deciding that I was no ‘weapon carrying terrorist’ who had to be detained from a flight. Thus, I felt that in a mysterious way that I was saved from a precarious dilemma by da Vinci’s spirit, which seem to roam the Rome international airport.
While in bed that night, it also didn’t escape my attention that what remarkable and eccentric folks - the Italians are. In other nations, the show-case airports are named after 20th century grandees – mere politicians who exercised power benevolently or maliciously [J.F.Kennedy international airport, Reagan national airport, Charles de Gaulle international airport, Indira Gandhi international airport, Bandaranaike international airport, Leopold Senghor international airport, to name a few!].
But in Italy, they have named their most distinguished airport in Rome for a person who lived more than 500 years ago. This guy, da Vinci, being not a politician or a statesman was nominally powerless. But, he had one of the straightest and sharpest heads ever carried by a human in 10,000 years. I was impressed that Italians thought of recognizing this authentic genius by naming the Rome international airport after him.
My thought that the Italian police might have misunderstood me as a Sinhalese was not in error, since I was presented with a form, which carried only two scripts – the Sinhalese and Italian! One should also not forget, that the only hijacking incident in which a Sri Lankan was involved was that of Sepala Ekanayake’s fool-hardy attempt of hijacking Al-Italia Airlines jet in Bangkok in June 1982, with a pseudo body armor, and claiming $300,000. Initially, this loony nut was even treated as a ‘veeraya’ (hero) by the Colombo public and press. [an excerpt from the Sunday Leader of March 23, 2003 editorial is as follows: “Remember Sepala Ekanayake, who hijacked an Alitalia plane? He was welcomed to Sri Lanka by cheering crowds and drove in triumph to Colombo on decorated streets.”]
Thus, the harassment I underwent on 24th night was rather in the order of Chaplinisque tragi-comedy of mistaken ethnic identity. The airport police in Rome – after probably running a quick computer check, and noting the Al-Italia jet hijacking by a Sri Lankan Sinhalese in 1982! - mistook me for a Sinhalese ‘terrorist’, based on my name appearing in the secret no-fly list prepared by the TSA. I rather doubt that the FBI has any record on my un-civil activities, since I have not engaged in any such activities during my stay in USA (cumulative total of 6 years and 6 months) and Japan, since 1981. Thus, the malicious information about me should have been passed on to the TSA – in all probabilities - by a Sinhalese bureaucratic weasel in Colombo just to harass me and restrict my cross-border travel.
Karmas of Three Kinds
In sum, it is my belief that one is served with karmas of multiple kinds. On August 21st, I had the ugly karma served by the Singapore Airlines. On August 24th, first I was blessed with good karma by the Japan Airlines, which didn’t take into consideration the notorious ‘secret no-fly list’ of TSA. Later on that day, I experienced both bad and good karmas at the Rome international airport from the Al Italia Airlines. It is also my ugly karma that despite the advice of my wife and other family members, and despite severe professional odds, I clinged onto my Sri Lankan passport for the past 23 years – while living in USA and Japan – to be a honorable citizen of Sri Lanka. But, now I will think twice whether such a labor of love is worth the trouble, if some bureaucratic weasels or skunks in Colombo – without any proof - has tried to cheat me by passing my name to the ‘notorious no-fly list’ of TSA.
On August 19th, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Senator Edward Kennedy brought to public attention, the existence of this notorious ‘no-fly list’. It has been reported in the news media that more than 350 Americans have suffered harassment by the execution of this ‘no-fly list’. I wonder whether I’m the only Sri Lankan Tamil (holding the Sri Lankan passport) who had to face this precarious dilemma in being named in this notorious ‘no-fly list’. I provide my harassment experience in the belief that it will be of some help to other Tamils, who may face such ordeal in the future.
To conclude, there certainly are evil-minded persons whose nuts are filled with nasty thoughts and spineless jerks who ‘go by the computerized information’. But, the world is also full of decent and civic minded personnel who can make objective decisions on the spot to relieve agony and pain of powerless humans. Long live such good folks. They are badly wanted at every airport. I let Pimm Fox, the London-based journalist, to have the last word: “The technology that’s misused is a problem. The no-fly list is a no-win in the fight against terror.” [source: Computer World magazine, August 30, 2004].