At her majesty's pleasure
My sins, in brief: When the cabin crew refused to radio JFK to see if I'd left my laptop at the gate and also declined to move me to another seat, "an altercation ensued" -- not physical, but verbal, with the flight attendants becoming snootier by the minute and me becoming, well, let's say, more American. I behaved badly in-flight, yelling at the crew, "I am an American citizen! You are our lapdog ally!" and other remarks of a vulgar and unhelpful nature. Very vulgar, I'm afraid: At one point I called that tired stewardess the worst thing you can call a woman -- you all know what it is -- but by then I was in full-blown air rage, something the airlines used to understand but, on the evidence, no longer do.
Finally, I went back to the galley and sat on what is called the "bustle," which is where they keep those rubber slides should a plane go down in water and where, over many years of these flights, I've seen lots of people sitting and children playing without anyone making a fuss about it. But times have changed, and now parking your ass on the bustle constitutes "endangering an aircraft," which is a very high crime under Britain's new anti-terrorism laws, and can get you sent to prison for a minimum of two years. I was warned about this (so they tell me), but I still refused to move; and when we finally landed at Heathrow the next morning I was escorted off the plane by two of London's finest -- not the sort of "bobby" I remember from many years in London, but fully outfitted SWAT-team types, bristling with munitions and in no mood for smart alecks. They dragged me past customs straight to police headquarters at Uxbridge, an indescribably dreary, prefabricated suburb and corporate-operations center west of London, where "incidents" originating at Heathrow are all referred for jurisdiction.
It wasn't until I got to the police station that I began to realize, slowly, the nature of the trouble I was in. A solicitor -- in my case, the English version of a public defender -- was rustled up from somewhere, and seemed to think that I'd probably get off with a slap on the wrist for "disturbing the peace" and be sent home. But I had no idea of the depth of modern Britain's terror paranoia, and I was amazed to discover, after I was "cautioned" and formally "interviewed," that the Uxbridge constabulary knew all kinds of things about me that I hadn't told them. Evidently, the "suspicious" passport and the last-minute ticket purchase, not to mention the bustle business, had resulted in a call to Interpol or some other surveillance outfit. I'm guessing here (because the police aren't obliged to tell you anything), but in the eyes of British law I apparently bore all the marks of a jihadi-in-waiting. Most surprising to me was the fact that the police had information about my family -- specifically, that my father is a convert to Islam, married to a Moroccan woman; that I have two Moroccan half-sisters; that I have spent long periods in the Middle East. I was appalled to find out that such details are available "at the click of a mouse" to any squirt with a badge, and I must have indicated as much to the squirts in question, because their notes about my "attitude and behavior" boiled down to one word: "obnoxious."
After a day and a night in isolation at Uxbridge, I was hauled the next morning, a Friday, to Magistrate's Court, where I was formally charged with "endangerment" and ... something else. I'm looking through legal papers to see what it was, but I can't find any record of it. It had something to do with "bad behaviour," a point I'd pass over if the British, under Tony Blair, hadn't made "behaviour," with or without damage to third parties, a crime in itself when it suits them. Did I know that "verbal abuse" was a criminal offense in Britain, the police had asked -- I didn't -- and that the laws of Britain also apply on board a British aircraft?