I’m a WASP, in my late 60s and retired after spending most of my working life in finance. I’m a US Army veteran. And I get harassed by Customs and Border Protection each time I return to my home in the USA.
OK, I did work in the Middle East, but that was in the early 1980s and although I have been back as a tourist, my last trip was almost twenty years ago. Since then I have written the occasional article lamenting Uncle Sam’s misguided willingness to intervene militarily in the Muslim world, all too often, in my view, the result of the manipulation and exploitation of our political system by Israel’s partisans here. But if you are a frequent reader of the Unz Review and other independent websites, you know that criticism of Israel and its American enablers has become pretty routine. Are any of my fellow scribblers singled out for special treatment at passport control? I don’t know.
Although I’ve always thought of political commentary as protected speech, who knows how General Clapper and our bloated national security apparatus select citizens for special attention? Clearly there is now a wide and growing chasm between the government and the governed, between the entrenched interests of the national security state and the rights of its citizens. We are now all living in police state light, as my experiences with Border Protection agents seem to confirm.
Here is my story: Five years ago I was returning home via O’Hare airport in Chicago with my wife. I gave the passport control officer my passport. After running it through his document reader he began typing away furiously on his key board. He kept looking at his computer screen and at me and eventually called over another officer who seemed to be his boss. They kept looking at the screen and back at me. I began to feel a bit anxious; maybe more than a bit. Finally the senior guy asked, “Have you ever been to Canada?”
What a strange question! I stood dumb founded for a moment or two, thinking, considering. What could this be about? Canada is not exactly south Yemen. I eventually said, “Yes; about ten years ago my wife and I took a holiday trip to Vancouver Island.” More typing on the computer and whispered conversation between the two officers which I could not hear; after a moment or two more, they let my wife go and took me to a room for a private interview.
I was escorted to a space which reminded me of a bar except that the bartenders were several feet higher than their customers and all had computer screens in front of them. We groundlings, several seedy looking travelers were already seated on metal folding chairs below the bar when I entered, awaited our “private” interviews. These consisted of the Border Protection folks shouting questions down to us. I was again asked if I’d ever been to Canada and what the last four numbers of my social security number were. More typing on the keyboard and more waiting; eventually I was released, hoping now that they’d put my SSAN into their system, I have no trouble in the future.
Silly me. On trips home from abroad I was routinely taken out of line for private interviews. Sometimes the agents were quite personable; sometimes less so. On one occasion an agent, an older man, promised to “straighten things out” for me; more often, I’d be confronted by a 30 something who treated me with a brusqueness which approached arrogance and contempt. The only thing that changed was instead of asking whether I’d been to Canada, the Border Protection folks now asked whether I’d ever been convicted of a crime. I’d always say “No” and be released after waiting while my interlocutors tapped away on their keyboards. Considering how short our conversations always were, it’s difficult to imagine just what the passport control guys were actually recording.
About two years ago at the end of one of my interviews I was asked whether I had a Commercial Pilot’s license. After resisting an almost irrepressible desire to inquire whether that question might have been more appropriately asked before I got on the airplane, I decided being a wise guy would get me into, well, more trouble, so I simply confirmed that I did. And I began to wonder whether I’d finally come across the reason Uncle Sam was taking such a heartwarming interest in me.
Fast forward to my last three trips through US passport control and customs, two at Liberty Airport in Newark and one at JFK. At Liberty in October I was not stopped at passport control. Oh happy day! But wait, when I got to customs the agent said rather ominously to me, “We’re not finished with you yet.” I stopped and waited with an as even expression as I could muster while the customs fellow typed away on his computer and finally said simply, “OK, you can go.” He showed not the slightest interest in my luggage and didn’t ask me any questions.
My next trip through Liberty was even more interesting. I was travelling with my wife and two grown daughters and again made it through passport control without being detained. When we got to customs, the agent there looked at our declaration form and started shouting, “Who wrote on this? You are not supposed to write on this. It says you are one person but there are four. Go over there to have your luggage inspected.”
We got in the customs line and waited half an hour for an inspector. When our turn came the agent looked at us and our customs declaration and began pecking away at his key board, looking up at us occasionally. And, just like the first time I was stopped at customs in October, the agent showed no interest in our baggage and eventually just waved us through.
My experience coming home through JFK was strange, even Orwellian. At JFK you put your passport in an electronic reader and the machine draws your portrait in black and white on what feels like the old heat sensitive paper used in photocopiers years ago. You then present the form to a passport control agent as you exit. In my case the machine had printed a large black X across my face. Nothing subtle about that and it was impossible to avoid the feeling that Big Brother had identified me as an Enemy of the People.
Another private interview, more typing on the computer and the agent asked again if I had a Commercial Pilot’s license. I confirmed that I did and asked if my license was the problem. He said, “You’re not on the list because of your license.”
My immediate reply was, “What list am I on and why am I on it?” At this point I guess the agent realized that he had said more than he should have. He said nothing further and merely gestured that I could go.
Why do the Customs and Border Protection folks harass me? The simplest explanation is because they can. They undoubtedly know that short of a successful suit in Federal Court there is no way I can get off their list. So now the US’s national security apparat uses secret evidence, which you can’t see or challenge, to put you on a secret list which causes you to be temporarily detained every time you return home. Bureaucrats operating secret, employing secret evidence and putting citizens on a secret list: 1984 maybe thirty years late, but it’s here.
While the Customs and Border Protection agents are wasting my time they’re wasting their own. They stop me at customs but don’t look at my bags. They ask me the same questions time and time again even though they already know the answers. What’s the thought process here? Let’s do our jobs and go harass somebody? It makes no sense. The Empire has begun to eat its own.