12:35 PM Central Standard Time. Thursday, July 2, 2009.
My plane into Houston’s aptly named George Bush Intercontinental Airport arrives earlier than expected. Jetlagged and worn-out after a long trip from Istanbul, my wife and I grab our much-too-heavy carry-on items and walk off the plane, taking our first steps into our home country since last summer. We are excited to see our friends and family and also to spend some time traveling in post-election America, but at passport control, we hit an unexpected snag and my heralded return to Texas takes a slight detour. The stoic, African American officer sitting behind the control booth inspecting our passports sees something he doesn’t like, and although he hands my wife back her passport and motions for her to pass, he instructs me to wait for questioning. Asked why I have been singled out, he offers a minimalist response: “I can’t tell you.”
I have friends who have been held up at passport control when entering the United States, but most of their stories involve only a brief series of professionally conducted questions. I myself have experienced a certain amount of unwarranted humiliation at the hands of power-abusing authorities when crossing the borders of other countries—namely, Armenia, Bulgaria, and, most impudently, Israel where my wife and brother-in-law were detained and interrogated for several hours during our visit last year—but I have never expected to receive such treatment when entering my own country. Indeed, nobody I encountered on this day treated me rudely or abusively, but this little brush with Homeland Security revealed to me that there is a serious dearth of knowledge about the peoples and places against which Homeland Security supposedly exists to protect us.
After waiting for a few minutes at the passport control booth, a Latino officer appears and escorts me to the interrogation room. He is quite courteous, and on the way, he explains that sometimes the system identifies suspicious information about certain travelers like myself—information that Homeland Security officers must then clarify. He also informs me that Homeland Security is protected by law from disclosing the exact reasons behind my brief detention. In other words, I am not legally allowed to learn why I have been flagged for special attention and am thus not in any position to contest this apparently incriminating information, whatever it may be.
As we walk down a side corridor, we pass by a set of glass doors behind which I can see a large room filled with other travelers who have evidently been deemed problematic. Judging by the various colored passports I see being passed between two officers, these folks are non-US citizens. I can only imagine how long these unfortunate visitors must spend here before they are eventually allowed to enter my country and how ridiculous this detention must seem after having already spent so much time, money, and energy in their home countries just to obtain a visa to come to the United States in the first place.
This crowded and chaotic room, however, is not for me. As a citizen of the empire, I am entitled to certain privileges denied to this roomful of brown-skinned foreigners, and I am escorted instead to a quiet and empty room at the end of the hall. Once inside, my escort hands my passport to a white, middle-aged officer sporting glasses and a thick, dark mustache. Thus, while Latino and black officers seem to be doing the grunt work, a white officer is doing the questioning. With a familiar Texas twang in his voice, he instructs me to have a seat as he runs my information through a computer in an adjacent office. As I sit there waiting, I look at the room around me. It is filled with twenty or so chairs, all of which are empty. Hanging on the wall are maps of various world regions, most noticeably a large map of the Middle East alongside a smaller map of Afghanistan. There are also several familiar patriotic symbols: flags and famous quotations from our white founding fathers.
After a few minutes, I hear the security officer returning. He approaches me with my passport in his hands and begins to speak in his characteristic Texan drawl: “So, you’re a teacher in Istanbul.” I am a bit taken aback by this statement. Initially, I assume that this information was gleaned from a Google search, but in retrospect, it is just as possible that this information has been stored in some file on me in the Homeland Security system. He continues with a few questions.
“How long have you been living in Turkey?” he asks. I tell him that I’ve been in Istanbul a collective total of three years. “Have you been in any other countries besides Turkey?” I answer truthfully, telling him that I have traveled far and wide. Then he gets more specific.
“Have you recently been in Kazakhstan or Afghanistan?” I tell him that I haven’t, and he wants to know if I’ve been to any other suspicious countries. What countries should or should not be classified as suspicious is, of course, an entirely subjective matter, but I figure it safe to assume that he cares little about my recent visits to Iceland and the United Kingdom. Not wanting to rock the boat, I comply with his request, and I tell him the names of some of Middle Eastern countries that I have visited in the past few years—places like Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. To my surprise, however, he doesn’t seem too interested and is apparently more concerned with Central Asia—perhaps because I have a Master of Arts in Central Eurasian Studies, although if and how he might know this information is anybody’s guess. Although Azerbaijan is not technically located in Central Asia, we talk a little about my time there, but when he realizes that I haven’t been to the Caucasus in several years, he quickly loses interest. Unable to uncover any incriminating evidence regarding my various travels, the officer then changes the subject to Turkey.
“How did you first start learning the language over there in Turkey?” he asks, carefully avoiding the word “Turkish.”
“I took a course at the University of Texas at Austin,” I explain.
“What do they speak? Is it like other languages over there?”
This level of ignorance takes me by surprise. I think we should be allowed to forgive the random American on the street who is not familiar with the major languages of the Middle East, but this is an employee of the Department of Homeland Security. How can any person be capable of discerning threats from a region of the world that he or she knows nothing about? Trying to hide my astonishment, I answer him honestly, explaining that Turkish is related to a number of Central Asian languages like Uzbek and Kazakh. Hey, if our tax dollars didn’t pay for this Homeland Security officer to learn the basic information necessary to do his job, I guess it’s my duty to give him a quick, impromptu lesson.
It looks as if the officer is done with me, but when I mention that my wife is waiting for me outside, he seems to take a renewed interest. “Does she live in Istanbul, too?”
“So she’s a teacher?”
“Is she like us?” the officer asks. I ponder the words “like us” for a few seconds, trying to understand the meaning. Like us? What, other than that nasally Texas accent, does this middle-aged Homeland Security officer who has never even heard of Turkish have in common with me? I decide to play it safe.
“Yes, she’s an American citizen,” I answer, hoping it assuages his inquisitive suspicions.
“But is she like us?” he responds, again emphasizing those two curious words. Sensing that I am just not getting his point, he clarifies, “You know, is she Anglo?”
The officer, correctly perceiving that the word “white” in this context would be politically incorrect instead utilizes a transparent euphemism: “Anglo.” Even if America now has a black president, we still live in a white-privileged society.
Aghast at this prejudiced, intrusive, and completely unnecessary line of inquisition, I nevertheless answer honestly saying, “She was born in Houston, but her father is from Lebanon.”
I am afraid that this last bit of information, the addition of Lebanon into the equation, may extend the length of my little interrogation. I anticipate questions about my wife’s family, about their religious background and political views. But I get none of this. Instead, the officer presents me with an entirely asinine assumption.
“Oh, so she must help you with your language over there in Turkey then.”
Incredulous with the utter stupidity on display before me, the total ignorance regarding the basic differences between such disparate places as Turkey and Arabic-speaking Lebanon, I answer the only way I can: “Yeah, she helps me with my Turkish.” It is the only lie I tell all day.
The officer smiles, apparently pleased at his detective skills, and hands me back my passport. He thanks me for my cooperation and shows me to the door. On my first day back in the United States, this friendly and well-meaning officer serves only to shatter what little faith I have in the competence level of the Department of Homeland Security.
Many of us Anglos, to use the term preferred by the officer I encountered, have good memories of The Andy Griffith Show. This series, which I know only through reruns, presented television watchers with the ideal all-American community, complete with a colorful cast of comical characters including the bumbling and bungling deputy sheriff Barney Fife. However, while we may all have a special place in our hearts for the lovably incompetent Barney and his amusing antics, do we really want him to be the one controlling our borders?
But perhaps we should resist the temptation to place all of the blame for this observed ineptitude solely on one particular officer, lest we turn him into a hapless scapegoat for what is truly a much broader, institutional problem with the entire Homeland Security apparatus. Indeed, perhaps the Department of Homeland Security intentionally keeps their personnel uninformed regarding the peoples and cultures of the regions they are told to be wary of. An uneducated workforce is much more manageable. Otherwise, those who are so vigilantly guarding our country against the dark and dangerously evil abroad begin to realize the sheer ridiculousness of their standing orders and the idiocy of their organization’s institutionalized xenophobia. Like that character from J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the magistrate of a town located on the distant frontier of an unnamed empire who learns through close, personal contact that those barbarians who he is supposed to fear are not really all that barbaric, a cadre of Homeland Security officers who have been educated regarding the cultures of Central Asia and the Middle East may perhaps become less heedful of their instructions to interrogate supposedly suspicious characters like me.
Thus, the problem is a lack of education—not only for the employees of the Department of Homeland Security but also for a greater American populace that has been trained to see the world through a lens tinted by alarmist news bulletins and color-coded terror alerts. In this regard, we would all do well to ponder the wry observation of the Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness: “If there is any such thing as crime, then it is a crime to be uneducated.”
GREGORY A. BURRIS is a writer, teacher, and traveler whose other articles have appeared in such publications as Dissident Voice, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Middle Eastern Studies, and Quarterly Review of Film and Video (forthcoming). Originally hailing from the East Texas town of Texarkana, he is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey.