July 17, 2005

Was I a Victim of Terror?

NotafraidMILAN—Last week I took my first trip to Egypt—indeed to any Arab country—and being a Jewish American, I was a bit nervous about going there. But I never expected that I would have a moment of terror on my way back to Paris, in a European airport.

During the more than four years I have been based in Europe, I have traveled a great deal for work. I have taken the Eurostar, the train which links Paris and London via a tunnel under the English Channel, more than one hundred times.  I used to get to my office in London by getting off the underground at Liverpool Street, which is one of the three stations attacked on 7/7 by British citizens from a Pakistani background. And I often take several plane trips in a month.

But until the other day, the only time I had been afraid of terrorists was when I read The 9-11 Commission Report on a US domestic flight. I was reading about how terrorists had killed Danny Lewin, the brilliant founder of a communications firm and an Israeli army veteran, by slitting his neck from behind with a box cutter as he fought their killer-colleagues. Danny and I had met several times, and I had a lot of respect for him. He once took me to dinner at Elliot’s Oyster House in Seattle and picked up the tab, joking that he could afford it. No shit – thanks to the success of his company, he was worth about half a billion dollars.

Reading about the details of his death on his flight out of Boston, which was hijacked by well-dressed men impersonating businesspeople, made me very upset and I had to put down the book. I was happy to get off that plane when it landed.

Wednesday, on my way back from Cairo, I had a stopover in Milan’s Malpensa airport. I was slightly woozy from lack of sleep. After passing through the too-relaxed security checkpoints, I was mindlessly navigating the signs to my gate when I noticed a group of about seven men in their late 20’s or early 30’s walking in front of me. The men looked to be from Southern Asia, possibly Pakistan, and they were wearing business suits. They caught my attention when one of them took out a camcorder and started to film the airplanes and the tarmac through the window. Now, the tarmac at Malpensa is nothing to write home about—just a bunch of Alitalia planes being loaded and unloaded. One of the other men pointed, and the videographer started filming the packed parking lot through the opposite window.

I suddenly became alert.  Why were these men filming the airport?  I checked for CCTV cameras – none in evidence. There was no one else in the corridor. I continued to follow them, hoping to learn more. It was easy to track them, since they were walking to my gate—they were heading to Paris too. Now I was getting nervous. I thought about the situation: lax security checks, seven well dressed men who were possibly of the same background as the London bombers. In Europe, there are no locks on the cockpit doors, and no air marshals. No chance of stopping these men if they wanted recreate 9/11 in Europe.

We continued toward the gate, and as I waited in line behind them to present my boarding pass, I was close enough to see that one of their passports had a black cover. Pakistani passports are black. Did that mean anything?

At the last minute, I got out of line and looked for any sign of someone in authority—the police, a security guard, a soldier—but there was no one. I approached a young agent from SAS airlines at another counter and told her what I had seen. “Are people allowed to film in the airport?” I asked. “There are not supposed to.” She picked up a phone, and after a chat in Italian, said, “I’ve called the police.” “Are they coming? Do they want me to point out the man who was filming?” “No, sir,” she responded, “go ahead and board the plane, they will take care of it.”

I gave my boarding pass to the agent at the Paris gate and boarded the shuttle bus for the plane, which was parked on the tarmac. But as the bus idled, I realized the police weren’t going to take care of anything. My tension mounted and I exchanged suspicious glances with the men, who were now on the shuttle with me. Were they eyeing me because I was looking at them? Or because they had seen me talk to the agent?

I took my decision. I walked off the shuttle and back into the terminal, and took the next flight instead.

Was I right to be worried about these men? Who knows—not the Italian police, anyway; and in any case I knew these guys weren’t so dumb as to do a bunch of filming and then blow up the plane and the video tape with it. But I was nonetheless afraid; I had been terrorized by the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorists. And the events were fitting into what seemed like a familiar pattern.

The best civilian response to terror, as the people of London and Tel Aviv have courageously demonstrated, is to continue to live our lives normally. I try to do the same; Friday I again took the Eurostar to London for a meeting, and while there made it a point to take the Underground as usual.

I can’t help wondering, then, was I being too paranoid about these men? Was I letting terror get to me? Or was I taking sensible precautions in an uncertain time? I’m still not sure. All I know is that the flight landed safely in Paris.

By Will Friedman in Terrorism | Permalink  | 


Seeing as how you changed your travel plans out of paranoia after steeping in fear in your seat on your first flight, I'd say the terrorists have already got you beat.

Posted by: | Jul 19, 2005 3:46:03 PM

Re: the previous post: Sadly, I believe it's likely to be someone who "the terrorists have beat" that is alert enough to thwart something serious. In the meantime, Overseas Will, I appreciate your being candid about your fears. It's a weird time, buddy. We're all going to handle this differently. And now look what the hell happened in Egypt.

Posted by: Courtney | Jul 27, 2005 7:31:35 AM

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