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This July, traveling by Greyhound, I arrived in Detroit from Windsor, Canada. A dog sniffed all passengers for drugs, and a border agent checked our bags. U.S. citizens produced IDs, while foreigners displayed visas and/or passports. Nothing was out of the ordinary except for this exchange I had with an officer:
“Why are you going to Detroit?”
“I’ve never been here. I just want to check it out.”
“How long will you stay?”
“Just a couple of days.”
“Where will you stay?”
“At a motel… on Jefferson Street, I think.” Normally, I can’t instantly recall the street of my hotel, or even its name.
“Where will you go after Detroit?”
“Home, to Philadelphia. I live in Philadelphia.”
“Where did you buy this ticket?”
“It says Dallas on your ticket.”
“Huh, I don’t know, maybe that’s the headquarters for Greyhound. I bought my ticket online.”
Then he let me go. It was truly weird, that brief grilling, and totally unnecessary. An American returning home should not have to answer any of these questions. As long as I carried no contraband, it should not matter why I was going to Detroit, how long I would stay, or where I bought my ticket. The only two tasks of our border agents are 1) To stop anyone from entering this country illegally, and 2) To prevent people from bringing banned substances into the U.S. Maybe this officer simply assumed that there were no legitimate reasons for anyone to visit Detroit? But so what if I was irrational or insane? He still had to let me in. Maybe I had a dollar in my pocket and wanted to buy a spacious home, right outside downtown. Maybe I couldn’t wait to have a Coney Island hot dog, then a raccoon quiche… Again, an American coming home should not have to explain himself, especially if he was arriving from Canada, and not an enemy country like North Korea. Maybe I had no place to stay in Detroit and was ready to join the thousands sleeping on its empty lots or inside its abandoned buildings. He still had to let me in. What would he do if I gave an unsatisfying answer? Kick me back to Canada?
It’s only routine to ask foreign nationals for where they would stay while in the U.S. On October 28th, 2002, National Review examined the visa applications of 15 of the 9/11 alleged hijackers. (Four applications were not available.) Of these, only one listed an address. The rest scribbled nonsensical answers such as “Wasantwn,” “Hotel D.C.,” “Hotel” or “JKK Whyndham Hotel.” One simply wrote “NO,” as to where he would stay. There were additional problems with each of these applications, yet all the men were granted visas, absurdly enough. The attitude of these alleged hijackers was not just casual, it was flippant, as if they knew this annoying procedure was entirely unnecessary, a mere formality.
Similarly, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, could expect to fly from Amsterdam to Detroit without a passport. With the right string pulled, who needs a stupid document? Before boarding, Abdulmutallab was spotted by an American couple, lawyer Kurt Haskell and his wife, Lori. This shabbily dressed, 23-year-old Nigerian was accompanied by a suited, Indian-looking man around 50-years-old. The odd pair caught the Haskells’ attention. Speaking in American accented English, the Indian-looking man intervened with the ticket agent to get Abdulmutallab onboard, "He is from Sudan, we do this all the time.” Who are “we,” Haskell would wonder later, if not the U.S. government?
Abdulmutallab then tried to blow up the plane, but eighty grams of PETN couldn’t explode without a blasting cap. Bumbling Umar didn’t know that, however, so only his crotch was martyred. Online, Abdulmutallab had often complained about controlling his sex drive, how even “The hair of a woman can easily arouse a man,” how, despite much effort, he couldn’t always lower his gaze at the sight of female flesh. Perhaps Abdulmutallab was only trying to purify himself by making mince meat out of his ragingly persistent endowment. Down, boy, down! The lives of the hundreds of infidels were just an extra bonus.
Not amused, Kurt Haskell wanted to know who this Indian-looking man was. When the F.B.I. visited him four days after the incident, Haskell asked if they had brought the Amsterdam security video so he could help to identify this enabler of terrorism, “but they acted as though my request was ridiculous.” There was no follow up investigation. Someone did bother to phone Haskell, however, to warn him, rather menacingly, that it was “in [his] best interest to stop talking publicly” about this episode.
So people who should be stopped are not stopped, but Americans returning home are sometimes subjected to ridiculous questions, or worse. In January of this year, journalist and photographer Michael Yon was handcuffed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for refusing to answer a question about his annual salary. “When they handcuffed me,” Yon relates, “I said that no country has ever treated me so badly. Not China. Not Vietnam. Not Afghanistan. Definitely not Singapore or India or Nepal or Germany, not Brunei, not Indonesia, or Malaysia, or Kuwait or Qatar or United Arab Emirates. No country has treated me with the disrespect that can be expected from our border bullies.” Yon concluded that a question about his income had nothing to do with airport security, and he was right, obviously. It only takes common sense to figure that out, except that our national security is no longer based on common sense.
In 2008, at Lubbock Airport, Mandi Hamlin was forced to remove her nipple rings before she could board a flight. As male TSA agents snickered nearby, she had to use pliers to take one off. Why was her humiliating and painful ordeal necessary? How could nipple rings ever be a security threat, unless, of course, it’s not about security at all, but power.
Also in 2008, Robert Perry, a 71-year-old man in a wheelchair, was at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport when he set off the metal detector. Perry explained that it was likely his artificial knee that had caused the alarm, but a TSA agent still pulled his pants down in view of other passengers. Humiliated, Perry asked to see a supervisor. She came but, instead of showing common sense or, God forbid, compassion, only pounded on her chest, “I have power! I have power! I have power!” How asinine must you be to assume that there was even a remotest chance that this old man had implanted a bomb inside his own knee? No fresh suture marks, see? Are you happy now?
Of course, it’s not about security or common sense, but power. At its essence, power is always the ability to dictate, control or violate another body. Power means “I can lay my hand on you,” if not, “I can fuck you up.” The sexual aspect is not incidental. Before a black man was lynched, he was often stripped naked and displayed. Stripped naked, Iraqi prisoners were forced to perform humiliating acts and/or stacked onto pyramids. Perhaps we should replace the generic pyramid on our dollar bill with disrobed detainees? They don’t have to be foreigners, since we also strip our domestic prisoners. Perhaps we can have pyramids of naked airline passengers on dollar bills? Novus ordo seclorum, New order of the ages!
Power is also the ability to be unjust, irrational or merely stupid. Although it makes no sense, I will do this to you because I can. Take the current prohibition against taking photos in certain places. A real terrorist would not take a photo, then plant a bomb. He would just plant his bomb. Again, it’s not really about security, but power. Even as Big Brother sees through your clothes, he can arrest you for snapping a photo in public.
As we experience further turbulence in the years ahead, economically and socially, expect to see more bullying from our government and its agents, even the pettiest. Especially the pettiest. Unwilling to restore meaning and purpose, they will subject their subjects to more absurd orders. Craving solutions, many of us will mistake their ridiculous commands for answers.
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.