28 June 2006

Land of the free?

Living in the UK means that I am often forced to listen to people making fun of the United States and its all-powerfull, all-controlling, evil leader, George Bush. I don't even really notice it now, and long gone are the days when it used to get my hackles up. One misperception that does annoy me, however, is the idea that the President controls all policy in the United States. People seem to think Congress is a rubber stamp, let alone the fact that many of the policies they find objectionable are implementedon the State level. So over time I've become somewhat inured to the complaints people make. I even had a conversation along these lines with mharder when I saw him in Seattle. We joked about how the President doesn't have much of an effect on our daily lives, and we mostly go on living the same way regardless of who's in office.

Bearing that in mind I'd like to describe a recent experience that left me angrier than I've been in a very long time; possibly angrier than I've ever been with respect to a political or governmental issue.

My friend Pam came with me on my recent trip to Seattle. She's a visiting scholar from Australia and she was asked to fill in at the last minute along with me (her advisor decided to stay home in Perth). Over the course of the trip she was treated to so much harassment from the TSA that I was literally steaming when we finally exited the country into Vancouver (our stopover for the return flight).

It began right when we arrived in Seattle. I joked that I got to jump in the fast (US Citizen) lane while she had to stand in line with the terrorists. After I had cleared immigration and was still waiting a half hour later I started to wonder what was happening. I looked around the baggage claim area but couldn't see her. Once they finished all of the citizen's line and started taking the dregs from the visitor's line I was really confused because she was toward the front half of that line. When they shut out the lights in the immigration desks and all went for a smoke break I was really worried. I assumed I must've missed her and so I left the baggage area to look for what I expected would be an arrival lounge. Unfortunately I found nothing but a dingy train station without any signage to speak of. I got on the first train since there seemed nothing else to do and debarked at the stop marked "MAIN TERMINAL" as it was the mostly likely candidate for escaping the airport.

After an hour and a half of waiting (and trying to get my useless American mobile phone to send a message to Pam's Australian number) she finally came up the escalator, looking tired, but, remarkably, without complaint. Evidently she had been given a big red card in her passport at the immigration line and shunted off to the interrogation room. Inside one woman was weeping because she was refused admittance and couldn't get in touch with her American husband. Another Canadian gentleman was standing numbly while a TSA agent stamped "NOT ADMITTED" approximately 25 times on his entry form, at which point the two agents started discussing how they were going to keep him in custody until he was deported. I later joked that these were probably hired actors designed to frighten people like Pam into admitting she was a member of Al Qaeda (and now the CIA is wiretapping my blog). After a lengthy bout of questioning about where she was coming from, what she was doing in the country and with whom she was travelling she was sent to another agent to be asked the same questions all over again. Thus was she not only interrogated needlessly, but also in a horrendously inefficient and bureaucratic fashion. Of course when she was at last allowed to leave the country, the TSA agent said, "Enjoy your visit to the United States!"

The way in, however, was a prelude for the way out. We collected our boarding passes for the Seattle-Vancouver flight and headed to the security checkpoint which had a very long line. Whlie waiting in line we discovered Pam's boarding card had a huge blue sticker on it. "Uh oh, I said, this means you're getting the latex glove treatment." I continued to explain how the TSA prints "SSSS" (for Super Super SUPER Security) on boarding passes of passengers flagged for hand search and additional harassment. I also explained how pointless it is, since any well informed terrorist will be aware of this fact (just like you, dear readers) and get out of line if he gets the SSSS of Doom. As I was telling this story we saw that Pam indeed had the SSSS in addition to her flaming blue sticker.

I handed my boarding pass to the attendant who glanced at it and waved me through. Pam handed her hers and she immediately asked, "Are you travelling with anyone?"

"Him," said Pam.

"Grrrrreat," thought I.

"JOHN, LANE 1!" screamed the TSA agent, sending us both over there. Little did I know that this would be great news for me since I did not have an SSSS boarding pass and would be able to shoot right through the Lane 1 checkpoint and actually skip most of the line. Pam on the other hand got immediately pulled into the extra check area. I picked up her laptop on the conveyor belt (I've heard too many stories of people leaving stuff on those things and having it stolen).

"Is that hers?" asked an agent incredulously.

"Yeah it is," said I.

"YOU CANNOT TOUCH HER PROPERTY!" the woman belligerently informed me. Once I put Pam's laptop down she yelled, "Scan this one again, Tom. HE touched it." Meanwhile I of course collected all my belongings and entered the gate area unmolested. Pam was then subjected to a hand search of all her luggage, the bomb-detecting cotton swabbing and what I'm sure was a lovely hand-search from the troll of a matron.

After I had again had to wait half an hour for Pam to catch up to me we had a question about her Visa waiver stub. Essentially they leave a bit of paper stapled in your passport when you enter and then you surrender it when you leave (under penalty of incarceration, as noted on the waiver stub). Nobody had yet collected Pam's so we wanted to make sure someone would do so. We showed it to one of the TSA guys (Pam said, "Let's not show it to anyone who looks likely to arrest me.") and he looked at it like he had never seen it before in his life. Let me remind you that every single foreign national travelling on the Visa Waiver program (that is, every tourist from every friendly nation on earth) has one of these. He gave us directions to some other staff person who could help.

Some of you may realize (I sincerely hope you all do) that every non-US or Canadian citizen entering the country gets fingerprinted and photographed upon arrival. You may also realize that we're the only Western country in the world to treat visitors so disgracefully. I didn't really get it before, but think about it: what is the only circumstance anyone gets fingerprinted in the USA? When suspected of a crime. It's an act that is incredibly freighted with suspiscion of guilt. In essence we're saying to everyone who visits, "We're just going to assume you're a criminal because it's easier that way."

Now, when we find this Homeland Security staffer she's standing in front of what looks like an ATM. She tells us that the HS Department is introducing a plan to take fingerprints and photos when you leave the country too. Unfortunately however, the machine is broken. "If you have time," she says, "you can find another machine in Terminal D." Pam, not wanting to rock the boat, agrees to find the other machine. At this point I'm ready to explode, and Pam, of all people, apologises to me for taking so long.

"It's not your fault, it's my incompetent government that's the problem!"

We find the other machine, with another HS officer who explains how to use it and that it's to make sure nobody has stolen or copied her passport and to help the government track who's in the country and who's left. He also tells us the gate agent should take the visa waiver stub (as it turns out the gate agent looked puzzled when Pam gave her the stub, so she may yet be arrested on her next visit to our fair nation).

Literally that morning, after spending a lovely few hours on the University of Washington campus, I had remarked on how much I missed being in America. I couldn't explain exactly what were the things that I missed, but even in Seattle, a city I had never set foot in before, I felt at home. I felt glad to be back. While sitting near the gate, waiting to board our flight, for the first time in my life I wanted to leave the USA and not come back. I'm proud of being American, despite the ridicule I get for it here. I have an abiding love of the principles upon which my nation was founded and through which it prospered. For the first time ever that was overwhelmed by disgust at how badly misappropriated those principles and that public trust had become.

Remember that all this had happened to a citizen of Australia, probably our closest remaining ally aside from Canada. If we treat our best friends like this we'll soon find that nobody is left standing beside us. Indeed, Congress is moving forward full steam with pointless strict border controls with Canada. The longest unprotected border in the world, a border across which there is more trade than any other on Earth, and soon to be another border where the hassle to cross is so great that it will become as good as a wall.

Every American should be forced to sit through this treatment to see how degrading and, worst of all, utterly pointless it is. How much money are we spending offending and turning away people who want to come to our country and contribute to it? How many people from less friendly countries like China are no longer bothering to apply for Visas to come study in the United States because they are consistently rejected for bogus security reasons? How long will it take before we've shut ourselves off from the world and stagnate into a second rate country? There are real threats to American security, and instead of facing them we're throwing billions of dollars away providing bad solutions to a problem that was relevant five years ago.

Thankfully after all this we entered Canada, which was so incredibly efficient that we made it off our plane, through immigration and into the international departure lounge using only 7 minutes of our 3 hour layover. This gave me plenty of time to get drunk in the Vancouver airport and forget how pissed off I was.

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