Weird title, right? You probably have no idea what it means. Well you should, because it concerns you. Chances are that if you’re reading this article, then you’re one of the thousands of Lebanese who travel, or will travel, to the United States.
It means you’ve been flagged for “Secondary Security Screening Selection” by the US Transportation Security Authority (TSA), the division within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) entrusted with air travel safety. DHS was created after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. TSA is basically the people who make you take your shoes off at US airports and go through the giant Startrek-looking X-ray machine, while you clasp your hands above your head. Then the machine takes an intrusive picture of your body, effectively rendering you naked.
The way you know you’ve been selected for the special reception right before you board, is that SSSS is stamped on your boarding pass, and that’s when you get pulled aside from the rest of the pack for some additional questions and searches. Latex gloves and Vaseline jars might also give it away.
According to leaked internal TSA documents, including their 93-page manual, excerpts of which were published in Wired Magazine, you are selected for SSSS based on several criteria of (presumably) suspicious behavior. Like purchasing a one-way ticket or paying cash for it. Or wearing a heavy coat in the middle of summer, with protruding wires and lumps. You could also be selected randomly, which is why you sometimes see little old ladies going through the procedure. If you’re on the no-fly list, you could also be selected, that is, if you’re a minor with a similar name to an adult on the list, otherwise, by definition, you couldn’t fly.
Finally, you could also be a national of a very exclusive club that only 6% of the world’s countries qualify for. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen or Algeria. Oh, and one more, Lebanon. That’s when you get the SSSS treatment every single time. To you, it might look random, because you’re usually transiting to the US, and meld into a larger non-suspicious crowd in London or Paris or the GCC, but every single person with a Lebanese passport gets it.
It’s pretty obvious why Iran, North Korea, and Cuba are on there — no diplomatic representation. Nothing necessarily to do with their potential for blowing up a plane. In fact, as far as I know, no national of those countries has ever done that. Some of the other countries are in a state of war, with a significant presence of Al-Qaeda or their offshoots, like ISIS, and since that was the impetus for setting up the DHS in the first place, it sort of makes sense. Besides, those countries have more important things to worry about than the ease of travel of their citizenry.
Actually, this isn’t the first time something like this happens, while our leadership sits by, idly. In 1986, during our civil war, after Lebanese militias hijacked one airplane too many, the US banned direct flights from Beirut to the US, so that now we’re the only country (not at war) in this neighborhood, without direct flights. Istanbul, Athens, Amman, Cairo, and the Unmentionable One, all have direct flights, but not one of our leaders or diplomats took it upon himself to ask for a meeting with Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, or Trump, to ask the question, “What do we have to do to have you lift this ban?”
More recently, a couple of years ago, the US banned electronic devices (like iPads) on flights from a bunch of the same countries, plus some Gulf states. They didn’t include Lebanon, only because with no direct flights, it wasn’t applicable. The next day, as the UK always does after a US decision, it followed suit, but wisely excluded the GCC countries, which spend some serious cash in London, and added Lebanon instead. Within a few weeks, the GCC countries had inquired about the conditions for removal of the ban, accommodated them, and got it lifted. Lebanon? It took around six months, a quintessential example of a success story, albeit last in class.
If we had some vigilant diplomatic representation, someone who takes the time out of his busy schedule to meet with the American authorities, we could perhaps negotiate our removal from this list or the flight ban. Maybe, in between press interviews, announcing that we’re about to default on our government bonds, we could trade teaching the US government how to run their country without a budget, in return for removing us from this dreaded list.
SSSS means something else. It’s a gentle version of Shshsh, or be quiet. Don’t hold your government representatives accountable. Keep electing them, while you remain one of the twelve designated pariah states ...at least according to the TSA screening procedures.
Dan Azzi is a regular contributor to Annahar. He has recently been invited to be an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard University, a program for senior executives to leverage their experience and apply it to a problem with social impact. Dan’s research focus at Harvard will be economic and political reform in a hypothetical small country riddled with corruption and negligence. Previously, he was the Chairman and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Lebanon
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