My Terrorist Resume Expands

As most of you will know, I am already persona on grata in the USA, and regarded with deep suspicion in New Zealand. Now, for entirely different reasons, I have managed to upset the security services in Australia. Here’s what happened.

When I checked my bags in with Thai Airways for my trip back to London I did the usual thing of warning the check-in person that there was this big lump of metal in my suitcase that might cause alarm when the bag was scanned. I have done this before, and was not unduly worried. The check-in lady didn’t seem worried either.

Having got airside, I found somewhere to get lunch and get online because I had run out of Internet access at the hotel before I could re-synch my iPhone with the UK SIM. (For some stupid reason Apple requires you to register any new SIM via iTunes, you can’t do it direct from the phone.) I had just done that when the PA paged me, asking me to come to my gate urgently.

Yes, it was the Hugo. It had turned up on the scan of my suitcase, and a small panic was going on. The lady who had checked me in was at the gate and confirmed that I had warned her about it in advance. Also, as I was online, I was able to pull up the Hugo Awards web site, and a nice picture of me holding my trophy (thank you, Tom Becker). The gate staff were impressed and congratulated me on my good fortune. Unfortunately the airport security people were not so friendly, and insisted on having me come and see them personally. I was dispatched off in the care of one of the airport staff, and that’s when things started to get weird.

My minder, Tony, wasn’t sure where my bag was being held, and got on the radio asking which lift he should bring me down on. The baggage staff denied all knowledge of the problem. Tony explained that someone in security wanted my luggage examined. The baggage staff said they could not find my luggage. Poor Tony was getting very embarrassed. As I had my laptop open to be able to show the pictures, I was able to tweet the whole process.

After some time, and considerably wandering around from one lift shaft to another, two airport security people came and found us, and escorted us to where they said the suitcase was waiting for me. Right up to the last moment Tony was saying I’d just need to open the bag and show the Hugo to the security guys. Then he opened a door and we were greeted by five burly policemen. At that point I knew I was in trouble and stopped tweeting.

Here’s what appears to have been going on. Firstly the check-in lady did not pass my comments about the Hugo in the bag on to security (the Thai Airways staff admitted to this). Secondly, having found the Hugo (which I must say lights up magnificently on the scans – I saw a print-out), the security people did not check with the airline, they called the police. And the police, having got involved, were determined to treat the whole incident as a potential terrorist threat.

What this meant for me was two-fold. Firstly my explanation was now worthless. I was now in “guilty until proven innocent” territory, and the only thing that would satisfy the police was seeing and examining the suspect object for themselves. Secondly I got the “good cop, bad cop” treatment. One of them was very sorry for the inconvenience; another kept asking me leading questions in the hope that I’d trip up on one and give them cause to arrest me.

Thankfully, compared to the Americans, these guys were amateurs. American security people always ask you questions that they know the answer to because they have your records in front of them, but you can’t answer unless you have perfect recall for dates and places.

Looking back on it, the confusion as to where my bag was being held could have been more poor communication, but it could also have been a deliberate delaying tactic to allow the police time to get on the scene. I’ll never know about that one.

After some rigmarole — the police would not open the case themselves, but were nervous of letting me do it in case I had a weapon in there — we got the Hugo out, and removed from the bubble wrap the that nice folks at Galaxy Books had put on it. That, it appeared, was sufficient to prove that it was not going to go boom while the plane was in flight, and I was allowed to re-pack my bag and head back to the gate (via extensive re-screening of my hand luggage and person, just in case).

I should note that the airline staff were very apologetic and helpful. They were upset about the creeping security culture in their country. Also all of my previous encounters with the Aussie authorities have been very positive. Last year I arrived in Melbourne with a cold at the height on the Swine Flu panic, and later that trip I had to have my boots cleaned for fear I had picked up Elf Cooties on my visit to Rivendell. The people I had dealt with then had been very friendly. But I guess security paranoia gets to every country in the end, even Australia.

I was rather worried that my bags might not make it onto the flight (I got back to the gate with minutes to spare). I was also very concerned that I’d have to go through the same rigmarole changing planes in Bangkok. Thankfully all my fears came to naught, and the suitcase and Hugo arrived safely at baggage claim in Heathrow.

Now I only have one question remaining. Has anything been put on my immigration records in Australia about this? I guess I’ll only be able to find out by trying to go back.

24 thoughts on “My Terrorist Resume Expands

  1. Oh lumme… Mind you, looking at the Hugo, I can see how they might have their suspicions. I think it’s the rocket-y shape. Glad you and it got back safely, you’ll have to stop winning these scary metal objects if you don’t want to set off the security alarms!

    1. I think it was very sensible of the Hugo organisers to have decided that in the case of third parties accepting, the award would be shipped to the winner (we were happy about this, as conceivably having to carry one home otherwise). It’s a shame that this offer wasn’t also available to winners collecting in person. Or perhaps it was, and Cheryl just didn’t want to let it out of her sight.

      “My preciiiousss!”

  2. It was in anticipation of this very situation that I asked the Hugo administrators to ship mine to me.

    (They assumed that if you were there to collect in person you’d want to take it home. In this day and age? Not bloody likely!)

    1. @ Charlie,

      I thought it had been decided that the awards were going to be shipped…in fact I had pointed out the date proximity to Sept. 11. So there was never any intention that winners would carry them home from the Hugo administrators. I was also told that Cheryl had been strongly advised to have her Hugo shipped, but that’s hearsay, so I don’t know if that’s the case.

      I did get an email yesterday about a replacement Hugo (I fortunately made spare bases) because Cheryl’s may have been blown up a Singapore airport. Relieved it wasn’t!

      1. Which reminds me, there is a Rugby World Cup game on Sep 11 2011 in New Plymouth, NZ (small provincial city) – between Ireland and USA.

  3. I had a discussion about this right after the ceremony. Maybe the Chicon V folks were onto something by creating the plastic Hugo that does not show up on scans and is light enough for hand luggage.

  4. Yikes, your experience was no doubt rather more nerve-wracking than my own issues with replacing my foolishly lost passport – worst case I was only going to be delayed a working day or two, with no risk of a ‘black mark’ permanently on my record.

    BTW, the standard fee for a NZ visa/permit application is GBP65, if this turns out to be the way to go. Of course, by the time that you want one, everything may well have changed.

    1. The fee sounds reasonable, but is it like the US where you need to drop $2k on a lawyer to have any chance of filling the forms in correctly?

      1. Hard to tell from the form, but the relevant parts seem simple enough. You have to provide proof of funds/guarantor, and there are different sections if you want to work (designed for tour guides and the like).

  5. Coming home from Montreal, I thought I might have problems at Customs… but it turned out my customs agent was One Of Us, and he was thrilled to be offered the chance to hold a Hugo.

    Maybe we need to offer Hugo Petting opportunities for security agents the world over….

  6. I’m so sorry this happened to you. We had a similar experience once at Luton, involving an over-zealous airline official and an antique sword. It worked out, but it was very stressful at the time, and unnecessary.
    Travel safely.

  7. In fact we made no assumption about whether winners/acceptors would want to take their trophies or have them shipped – we offered to do so in the pre-convention email to all nominees, again at the pre-Hugo reception (though the PA system was poor, so it might not have been heard) and again in person at the end of the ceremony. In the end we are shipping 11 out of the 23 winner trophies.
    Vincent Docherty

  8. Reading this makes me feel like I dodged a bullet. Like you, I packed my Hugo into my check-in bag; unlike you, I didn’t remember to mention it to the counter clerk. And I flew out on Friday, some days before you did. Perhaps the person who X-rayed my bag recognized the shape of a Hugo? At any rate, I feel like the recipient of undeserved good fortune.

    1. I’m guessing that you were OK because you flew out from Melbourne and other people had gone out carrying Hugos before you. My Hugo went by road from Melbourne to Sydney, and was probably the first Hugo the security people in Sydney had ever seen.

      Then again, maybe Melbourne people are more sane. As as sometime Melbourne resident myself, I prefer to believe that.

  9. My return trip from the 2003 Toronto Worldcon & International Film Festival provided my first brush with security paranoia. I was half asleep, traveling alone, and I forgot to take the Canadian loose change out of my pocket. That set off the security checks, and for the next two or three years of travel there was a Security Letter on my plane tickets indicating that I was a Suspicious Person. That letter, I suspect, also led to my bags being frequently checked on my trips for ee-vil contraband and one memorable bit of rude questioning from a security guy in Rotterdam.

    Goddess only knows what finally convinced the security turkeys the only thing they were accomplishing was wasting their time.

  10. Yipes, what a stressful, scary hassle!

    I suspect my new tattoo is why my carry-ons were double-checked a couple of times during my trip to/from Down Under, though I forget where each happened. I think one was in Auckland, doing an international transfer. (To balance that, the guy directing people to lines at immigration, leaving Melbourne, gushed about my tattoo, as he had several hidden under his long-sleeve shirt….)

  11. Well, when the fans decided to make the award a rocket ship to represent the future, I don’t think this was the future they meant… but sadly it seems to match nicely.

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