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Indonesian honoree questioned

A Columbia airport official says the man’s cake set off an alarm.
Wednesday, March 9, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:46 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

Security personnel at Columbia Regional Airport questioned a recent Missouri honor medalist Saturday after they thought they found explosive material on a cake wrapper in his luggage.

Goenawan Mohamad, a founding editor of Tempo, a weekly Indonesian news magazine, and Bambang Harymurti, Tempo’s editor in chief, received a 2004 Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism on Thursday.

While Mohamad waited for his plane to leave Columbia, airport security personnel called him in to be interviewed. In an article he wrote, published Tuesday in the Jakarta Post, Mohamad said airport security personnel told him they had found explosive materials “contained in a cake” in one of his bags.

“I asked him how they detected such a dangerous thing in my bag when other U.S. airports did not. I told him that my bag had flown from Jakarta through Taipei, Los Angeles, Dallas and St. Louis. He did not explain,” Mohamad wrote in the first-person piece in the newspaper.

Bill Boston, manager of the Columbia Regional Airport, said a swab on the outside of Mohamad’s luggage set off an alarm. When security personnel swabbed the inside of the bag, they found that the wrapping of the cake was setting off the alarm. In the article, Mohamad said his wife gave him the cake, which he said she had bought, to deliver to her sister in Berkeley, Calif.

Boston said airport security then called the Boone County Joint Communications and Information Center and the FBI. A Columbia police officer responded through joint communications, Boston said.

“I was pretty calm, partly because I believed at my age I would not make a credible inmate at the Guantanamo penal colony. But I could not help asking myself: Is my name, Mohamad, the problem? Or is it about my country, one of the many ‘unsafe places’ for Americans to go?” he wrote.

After about a half-hour interview with the officer, Mohamad was let go. Neither he nor the security personnel knew what, exactly, had set off the alarm.

Mohamad, who could not be reached Tuesday, said in the article that he found the search to be “an annoying (and simultaneously amusing) stupidity — just another symptom of American paranoia.”

He said the search caused him to be late for his flight, the last of the day. He rented a car and drove to St. Louis, where he barely caught his flight to New Orleans. Mohamad said that in the process, he lost his credit card, cell phone and $140 on a car rental.

Mohamad and Harymurti were honored for Tempo, which has been a champion of press freedom in Indonesia. Founded in 1971, it lost its license in 1994 after reporting on the military but began publishing again after the resignation of President Suharto a few years later.

Suzette Heiman, director of planning and communications for the MU School of Journalism and Mohamad’s chief contact at MU, said she did not find out about what happened until Sunday, when Mohamad sent her the Jakarta Post article. She said she was embarrassed but understood airport security was doing its job.

“I can imagine it’s difficult to balance wanting to take the proper safeguards and detaining people who should not be detained,” she said.

Heiman said she was upset that no one offered Mohamad an apology or to reimburse expenses incurred as a result of the extended stay. “It was an otherwise perfect visit that had a sour note at the very end,” she said.

Boston said he felt bad that Mohamad missed his flight, “but I don’t know why there would be an apology demanded or from whom. As near as I can tell, everyone did their job.”

Mohamad said his wife’s cake survived the ordeal. “It passed through security at the St. Louis airport, as it had at every other airport in the world except the one in Columbia, Missouri.”


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