Hey, travelers, watch-my-bag era at airport ended Sept. 11

This Just In...

November 19, 2001|By DAN RODRICKS

GREAT. JUST great. I'm about to take my first long-distance, east-west flight since Sept. 11 and a young woman with dark hair and a tie-dyed T-shirt, looking downright been-up-all-night, asks the guy sitting next to me at Gate B-13 of Baltimore-Washington International Airport if he'd watch her bag for a while, and this dummy agrees.

"This bag has been with me since 6:30 this morning and I've got to go to the bathroom," she says with a smile.

The guy sitting next to me has just finished a cell phone call and now he's at work on a laptop computer. The young woman gets only half his attention, so when he agrees to watch her bag, it's with a casual, no-problem-whatever grunt.

Pardon me if I sound like the high school hallway monitor who relished getting kids in trouble by reporting them for walking the corridors without a pass. I am not, with this column, volunteering for that new anti-terrorism civil defense initiative President Bush talked about a couple of weeks ago. I am not trying to put my name in for undersecretary of homeland security.

What I'm saying is this: In all the new federal spending for the effort against terrorism, we should earmark a billion or so for brain research to advance the concept of transplants because some of our fellow citizens are in dire need. Maybe our more astute citizens could be encouraged to mark "brain" on their organ donor cards.

First, let's take the young woman with the bag.

Didn't she get the memo about heightened airport security?

Hadn't she just gone through ticketing at Southwest Airlines, like the rest of us, and hadn't she just been asked if her bag had been in her possession the entire time? Hadn't her brain processed as a warning the question about strangers asking her to hold or watch their luggage? Hadn't she heard the frequently played recorded announcements on this very subject?

I could go on, so I will.

Hadn't she just gone through the metal detector at the gate and had her bag X-rayed, just like the rest of us? Didn't she notice people having their luggage opened and searched by men and women in latex gloves? Did she not sense that things are different at the airports these days? Had she missed the story - I know, it was more than two months ago, and some people forget - about how hijackers took control of four passenger jets and crashed two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon?

I don't know what the woman was thinking when she asked the guy sitting next to me to watch her bag. I don't know why she couldn't have taken the bag to the restroom; everyone else does. She was just clueless.

But what of the guy who grunted?

Maybe he was just trying to be nice in the bygone, pre-9-11 way. Maybe he figured a bag that had come through BWI security checks must be safe. (He must have been blissfully unaware that Southwest had just hired much-criticized Argenbright Security to staff checkpoints on B Pier.) Perhaps he was too busy with his laptop to realize how the young stranger's simple, be-a-dear request was a violation of the rules. They're not new rules, but rules being enforced with new vigor in the wake of a traumatic event that jarred everyone, especially people who travel by air.

"I don't think you're supposed to do that." A middle-aged woman sitting nearby said what I was thinking.

The woman was sitting next to an older man with a University of Louisville sweatshirt and cap. I took him to be her father. He seemed amused by the young woman leaving the bag and said just the right thing to make everyone feel better: "I'll check to see if it's ticking."

Ha, ha! Pretty funny, grandpa!

Two minutes passed. The guy with the laptop looked to see if the young woman was on her way back from the restroom, but she was nowhere in sight. (In fact, she did not return to the waiting area where she had left her bag for at least 30 minutes and it might have been more like 40.)

I didn't think there was a bomb in the bag. I was just a little steamed at the stupidity. I wanted to read my newspaper. I didn't want to have to play hallway monitor. But I guess this is what we're asked to do these days - report suspicious behavior and infractions of simple security measures that everyone should know by now.

So, no one else being inclined to do anything, I got up from my seat and went to the counter where you get your boarding pass and told a Southwest employee what had happened.

"And," she asked, "did you agree to watch her bag for her?"

"No," I said. "Someone else did."

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