Every summer, the beginning of travel season, I become apprehensive. I’m not afraid of flying. I take five or six trips a year by air, both short hops and long-haul flights that cross half a dozen time zones. I’m apprehensive because I don’t live in the United States, and travel in the summer typically means a trip back to the U.S. That’s where it gets difficult. I’m fond of traveling to places few Americans visit, which means my passport is littered with visa stamps from countries regularly featured on the nightly news, and not for the best reasons. It can make U.S. immigration officials edgy.
Passing through passport control in most countries is usually lackluster. For those that rely on tourism to fill state coffers—Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Morocco—a bored official in a glass booth will issue most travelers a visa for less than the price of a decent meal. My first arrival at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran was a nonevent. I was directed to a side room where my electronic fingerprints were taken and then my guide led me into the country.
My visa stamps cause no trouble until I return to the United States. Two years ago, waiting to board a Boston-bound flight in Amsterdam, I handed my passport to the Delta Airlines agent at the gate, who riffled through it, then handed it to another official standing nearby. He was from the Department of Homeland Security, assigned to screen passengers boarding American airlines headed to the U.S., under a program that had been introduced at fourteen airports around the world.
He asked me to step out of the line and then began a series of questions:
Why did I go to Iran—twice?
How long had I lived in the United Arab Emirates?
What kind of work did I do?
Was this my first trip to the U.S. since relocating to the UAE?
Why was I returning to the U.S.?
I told him that I was a university instructor and answered the rest of his questions with an air of pique, which probably came through.
“Thank you,” he said, and handed my passport back.
It was “interrogation with a human face,” but an interrogation just the same.
Seven hours later I was in the line marked “U.S. Citizens” at Boston’s Logan Airport. I handed my passport to the immigration official along with the customs form and waited. Then came the questions:
Why had I gone to Iran?
Before I finished with the explanation he handed back the customs form, marked with a large red check.
“Over here, sir,” another official instructed me.
I placed my bag on a stainless steel table and he began to root through it. The questions continued:
Why did I go to Iran?
Did I know any Iranians?
Was I bringing anything back from Iran?
Did anyone in Iran ask me to bring anything to the United States?
What was the reason for my four trips to Egypt?
How long had I lived in the UAE?
Why had I gone there? (To work on my tan, I wanted to say, but knew better.)
Could I prove that I taught at a university in Dubai?
I couldn’t, but whatever I said apparently satisfied him, because he began stuffing my belongings back in the bag.
Now that I had crossed the U.S. border from abroad I thought all my troubles were behind me. But I made the mistake of driving to Montreal to visit a friend, ironically, an Iranian who had emigrated to Canada. Crossing back into the U.S. at a remote boarder post in upstate New York, I was told to pull into one of the parking slots reserved for more thorough inspections, and as I stood and watched, another guard opened the back hatch and dug through the contents, first my bags and then the rest of the car—the box of CDs on the floor, the glove compartment, the door pockets all around. The search turned up nothing, but he still asked me to follow him to the office. Like the officials before him he was demurely polite, but in the smoothly deferential manner of a waiter in a five-star restaurant, which was a little unnerving. We know the reasons for a waiter’s practiced politeness, but the workings of the “security mind” can only be guessed at.
Inside the office the supervisor asked me why I had gone to Canada and why I took so many trips to so many countries (the academic calendar has lots of breaks). This time I also had to explain how I had come to possess two passports.
Three years before, I had traveled to Israel, crossing into the West Bank from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. After presenting my passport to Israeli immigration, I received a grilling similar to the one in Boston: Why had I gone to Lebanon and Syria, etc. Again I could not prove that I was a university instructor in Dubai, so she went into the back office to call the hotel in East Jerusalem where I told her I had reserved a room. My story must have held water, because she returned to the desk about ten minutes later and pounded a visa stamp into my passport.
That was the problem. I had already explained I was a UAE resident and therefore didn’t want a passport stamp, only the slip of paper most Western visitors receive. But the stamp was now there. Thankfully, returning to Dubai proved to be trouble-free because the UAE has a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” regarding Israeli visa stamps, but I had to get a duplicate passport to travel to countries where these will bar one from entry.
I told all of this to the supervisor in upstate New York and was again free to go. I had to lean on the accelerator to make it by dinnertime to State College, Pennsylvania, where I was planning to visit another friend, but the long drive was good for reflection.
It was becoming clear that a “culture of security” had become an insidious part of American life. An atmosphere of suspicion had become commonplace, not only invading American institutions but altering, in subtle ways, the manner in which Americans relate to one another—and one didn’t have to cross the American border to experience it.
After a few days in State College I drove to Philadelphia to visit another friend. It was my first time in the city, so one afternoon I walked downtown to sign up for a tour of Independence Hall. I was crossing Chestnut Street, which separates Independence Mall from the historic square, when a low-slung chain blocked the way. A crosswalk pointed pedestrians to the other side of the street, but there it stopped. Just beyond it was the usual horde of summer visitors. The ticket booth was clearly visible, off to the left, so I stepped over the chain and into the square.
A whistle blew, piercing and shrill. In a moment a security guard, a mammoth mountain of man, was standing over me. He shouted something about the walkway. I tried to point out that there was no sign or anything else indicating where one was supposed to go after crossing the street, but I made no impression.
“I’m going to count to three,” he bellowed, “and then you got a choice. Either I arrest you, or I spray you.”
I didn’t move. I wasn’t gripped with fear or trying to test him. I was simply dumbfounded. I had come face-to-face with security people in many real-life police states before, usually bearing automatic weapons and not shy about using them, so this situation struck me as utterly ludicrous. I shook my head and stepped to the other side of the chain.
The next day, by way of complaining, I told one of the park rangers what had happened. “Were you carrying any weapons?” she asked.
Later that summer I took my first domestic flight since 9/11. I had spent most of the time outside the U.S., and in the few short weeks I was back in the summer there had never been any reason to fly. But one August afternoon I was in the security line at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, waiting to board a flight to West Palm Beach. It was backed up and mildly chaotic, but the delay offered an opportunity to observe the security procedure up close. The passengers knew it well, and many had been through it often enough to make it routine. They acquiesced in the partial strip search and didn’t seem annoyed by the hectoring tone of the TSA officials, who barked, “Shoes! Belt! Jacket!” whenever these items failed to make it into the plastic trays that trundled through the X-ray machine. The unfortunate souls being shouted at seemed to have forgotten they were consumers who had paid for a service and had the right to be treated with the respect this warranted, not like grunts in a military boot camp.
While in line I made the mistake of talking on my phone. One of the TSA officials snapped, “Over there!”
I wedged through the crush of passengers to have my fingertips swabbed with felt strips, and by the time I got back to the plastic trays piling up on the other side of the X-ray scanner my carry-on bag was nowhere to be seen, nor the laptop computer that was inside it. I found the bag but not the computer, and told the agent it was missing.
“Why didn’t you come get it?” he sneered, before it finally surfaced, under a pile of other passengers’ purses and jackets and endless other odds and ends.
Later that summer the bag was stolen in New York. Gone also was my international driver’s license, some cash, the laptop computer—and both of my passports (yes, ever since the debacle at the Allenby crossing point I have had two, one bearing the Israeli stamp, the other without, for travel in and out of countries that prohibit them), along with the Iranian visa stamps and all the others that have aroused the suspicion of immigration officials. My travel troubles were over—or were they? Before I could leave the country I had to get a replacement, and at the U.S. Passport Agency in Chicago I got a dressing down from an agency official, who told me that being granted a passport was a privilege and not a right, that having had two stolen in a year would reflect badly on my record, and for that reason I would only be issued a “probationary” passport, valid for one year, and if another was lost or stolen I could be denied one entirely, essentially barring me from leaving the United States. I reminded him that I had been the victim of a crime and not the perpetrator, but it meant nothing.
The most troubling part of this whole encounter wasn’t the threat of having my wings clipped but the new distinction being made: the right of mobility was now a privilege that could be granted or denied, at the discretion of an agency official. It smelled of Soviet-era totalitarianism, where only “privileged” citizens were given the “right” to travel.
With the one-year passport I was able to return to Dubai, but as the end of the year approached I had to apply for a standard ten-year passport, which meant a trip to the U.S. consulate.
“We will have to ask for permission to grant you another passport, because you lost two in one year,” the official told me.
“I didn’t lose them,” I said.
She continued on, told me that my record needed to be reviewed, the reasons that the request could be denied, the time this would take, that I’d be informed of the decision . . .
“I didn’t lose them,” I repeated.
“It says here, ‘Lost/stolen,’ ” she finally replied, pointing at the computer screen.
“They were stolen. In New York. I have a report from the police department.”
She didn’t respond.
In the end the ten-year passport was granted, but I still have to carry two. One bears my UAE residence visa, needed to enter and exit the UAE; the other is valid for ten years. But there’s more. Soon after the Boston Marathon bombings I heard a federal official in one of the labyrinthine security agencies stating that “suspicious travel patterns” rouse the interest of security people charged with “connecting the dots.” In its short life span my one-year passport acquired visa stamps from Nepal, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary, Montenegro, Germany, Austria, Spain, Slovakia, and Albania. So, what “profile” might these dots form? I could worry about this, or I could give such thoughts the boot. I choose to give them the boot. Next summer I will book another flight back to the U.S. and I’ll be ready for whatever an army of immigration officials has to throw at me. Bring ‘em on. I have nothing to hide.