We depart on time, arrive on time, cross from Stansted to Gatwick and everything’s just fine. Lorena’s travelling on a new passport from her new country, Chile, which raises an eyebrow and a question or two at immigration but nothing more, because no-one’s scared of Chile and Chile behave themselves, and so we’re on our merry way to the Americas.
We get there way earlier than expected. You see we had to change planes in Dublin; and Ireland, it transpires, has joined the union as the 51st state. I had no idea. But as we look at the screen for our departure gate, we are told to ‘proceed to US pre-clearance’. And as we descend the escalator, we hear the voice of John F. Kennedy crackling through time over the speakers, talking of the Irish and their fortitude. And then we turn the corner, and we’re standing at US immigration.
If you’ve never travelled to the US before, let me clarify: this bit usually happens when you arrive in the US. In fact I think it’s fair to say that it’s considered customary the world over to place one’s borders at points of entry into one’s own county, be they by land, sea or air. It’s certainly the norm.
I imagine a conversation that went something like this:
“Hi, Ireland? Yeah, yeah it’s America here.”
“Huh? Yeah, anyway, we were wondering if…well, if you wouldn’t mind us placing a few people in your airport, to…to help. With things.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, we thought, if we could place our immigration officials, and our customs officers, and our security personnel in your airport, then…then it will so much easier and smoother for Irish folks to arrive in the US! No hassle at all! You just stroll on in, make yourselves at home! Wouldn’t that be great?”
“So…hold on, so you want to move your airport to our airport? Your international border to our country?”
“No no no, of course not! Heh. No. No, we just thought, you know, that it might make things easier…for you guys, I mean! Easier for everyone. In no way would this infringe upon your national sovereignty! You can totally say no if you want. But don’t. And under no circumstances should this be seen as imperialism! We’re just trying to…to help, is all. We’re not trying to outsource terrorist targets for a second; neither are we deciding who can and can’t leave your country (unless, of course, they want to come to ours). We do, not, I repeat DO NOT, in any way, see you as our bitch. Not at all.”
Before getting anywhere near a plane to the States, a UK citizen has to fill in an ESTA application online and supply API information to the airline. No biggie; I did this weeks ago. It’s a bit of a ball-ache, but means that I should be able to stroll into the US with the kind of jaunty ease unenjoyed by the vast majority of the world’s less origin-ally privileged visitors. It’s a source of no small annoyance to the wife that she is often required to jump through increasingly high and fiery immigrational hoops to get anywhere while I just saunter in.
This time, as we attempt to cross the border (an ocean away from the country we’re entering), a reversal:
- I’m shown a screen, and asked to identify my bag; I’m taken out back.
- Called to a desk, I’m asked where I’m from, where I live, what I do there, who my employer is, what currency I’m paid in, where I’ve travelled in the past year, and various other questions. I answer politely and sensibly stifle the urge to refer him to the NSA for further details.
- My suitcase is produced; I am asked about every scratch and dent (of which there are many), and am required to identify a laptop charger, a plug, a rucksack cover…
- I am asked how long I intend to be where; when finally released, I am told very clearly that I am expected to be in and out of the US within 5 days, and that when I pass back through, I do so only in transit.
- At security, I am stopped again. The ‘computer’ had selected me to have my bag, its contents, and my hands, swabbed. I know not what for.
We barely make the flight. As we sit on the runway, a voice announces that gathering in groups is against federal law. We take off. And in all fairness, when we land at JFK, we land at domestic arrivals, and it’s a breeze.
I’ve a few ideas why I might have been searched: my wife is Ecuadorian; I’m flying from a non-existent, Muslim country; said country is awfully popular with shady fuckers; my suitcase is knackered-looking; it’s the 4th of July; and my laptop charger looks like a bomb. It may be any one, or any combination, of these.
I can understand the concern, I can understand the nervousness and I can understand the subsequent questioning. What surprises me is that Ireland is allowing this shit.
It shouldn’t surprise me. Last week, Portugal, Spain and France all allegedly refused Evo Morales permission to use their airspace, because the US told them to; I find this genuinely shocking. Last week, Rafael Correa backtracked spectacularly after a meeting with Joe Biden; I find this sinister. While China and Russia can perhaps afford a wry smile at recent developments, and those less easily intimidated show admirable defiance – and while the majority of the world’s people take pleasure in America’s frustration in a game of cat and mouse – our governments remain cowed, shamefully, by America’s dominance.
The USA is scared. That’s why the NSA do what they do, that’s why Obama sanctions and defends it and that’s why even a law-abiding school-teacher like me can be perceived as threat. That’s why they’ve banned and blocked the Guardian website.
Edward Snowden is the ultimate symbol of American fear, because he is an American hero, and they have vilified and are hunting him. He has exposed the establishment, all the way to the top, as corrupt, and he has exposed their paranoia. Now he sits in an airport, watching, as we all do, who takes which side, and hoping, as I do, that more take his. It’s fascinating to watch, and tells us as much about our own countries as his (and the media coverage as much as government policy). I hope more nations choose to misbehave. I hope more exercise their right to say no to America. I hope they gather in groups, and restore some balance.