“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– Emma Lazarus, 1883
If you don’t mind thinking about the Bush legacy a year early, there are worse places to begin than with the case of Erla Ósk Arnardóttir Lilliendahl. Admittedly, she isn’t an ideal “tempest-tost” candidate for Emma Lazarus’ famous lines engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. After all, she flew to New York City with her girlfriends, first class, from her native Iceland, to partake of “the Christmas spirit.” She was drinking white wine en route and, as she put it, “look[ing] forward to go shopping, eat good food, and enjoy life.” On an earlier vacation trip, back in 1995, she had overstayed her visa by three weeks, a modest enough infraction, and had even returned the following year without incident.
This time — with the President’s Global War on Terror in full swing — she was pulled aside at passport control at JFK Airport, questioned about those extra three weeks 12 years ago, and soon found herself, as she put it, “handcuffed and chained, denied the chance to sleep… without food and drink and… confined to a place without anyone knowing my whereabouts, imprisoned.” It was “the greatest humiliation to which I have ever been subjected.”
By her account, she was photographed, fingerprinted, asked rude questions — “by men anxious to demonstrate their power. Small kings with megalomania”
By her account, she was photographed, fingerprinted, asked rude questions — “by men anxious to demonstrate their power. Small kings with megalomania” — confined to a tiny room for hours, then chained, marched through the airport, and driven to a jail in New Jersey where, for another nine hours, she found herself “in a small, dirty cell.” On being prepared for the return trip to JFK and deportation, approximately 24 hours after first debarking, she was, despite her pleas, despite her tears, again handcuffed and put in leg chains, all, as she put it, “because I had taken a longer vacation than allowed under the law.”
On returning to her country, she wrote a blog about her unnerving experience and the Icelandic Foreign Minister Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir met with U.S. Ambassador Carol van Voorst to demand an apology. Just as when egregious American acts in Iraq or Afghanistan won’t go away, the Department of Homeland Security announced an “investigation,” a “review of its work procedures” and expressed “regrets.” But an admission of error or an actual apology? Uh, what era do you imagine we’re living in?
Erla Ósk will undoubtedly think twice before taking another fun-filled holiday in the U.S., but her experience was no aberration among Icelanders visiting the U.S. In fact, it’s a relatively humdrum one these days, especially if you appear to be of Middle Eastern background.
Take, for instance, 20-year veteran of the National Guard Zakariya Muhammad Reed (born Edward Eugene Reed, Jr.), who, for the last 11 years, has worked as a firefighter in Toledo, Ohio. Regularly crossing the Canadian border to visit his wife’s family, he has been stopped so many times — “I was put up against the wall and thoroughly frisked, any more thoroughly and I would have asked for flowers…” — that he is a connoisseur of detention. He’s been stopped five times in the last seven months and now chooses his crossing place based on the size of the detention waiting room he knows he’ll end up in. It took several such incidents, during which no explanations were offered, before he discovered that he was being stopped in part because of his name and in part because of a letter he wrote to the Toledo Blade criticizing Bush administration policies on Israel and Iraq.
The first time, he was detained in a small room with two armed guards, while his wife and children were left in a larger common room. While he was grilled, she was denied permission to return to their car even to get a change of diapers for their youngest child. When finally released, Reed found his car had been “trashed.” (“My son’s portable DVD player was broken, and I have a decorative Koran on the dashboard that was thrown on the floor.”) During another episode of detention, an interrogator evidently attempted to intimidate him by putting his pistol on the table at which they were seated. (“He takes the clip out of his weapon, looks at the ammunition, puts the clip back in, and puts it back in his holster.”) His first four border-crossing detentions were well covered by Matthew Rothschild in a post at the Progressive Magazine’s website. During his latest one, he was questioned about Rothschild’s coverage of his case.
The essence of his experience is perhaps caught best in a comment by Customs and Border Protection agent made in his presence: “We should treat them like we do in the desert. We should put a bag over their heads and zip tie their hands together.”
Or take Nabil Al Yousuf, not exactly a top-ten candidate for the “huddled masses” category; nor an obvious terror suspect (unless, of course, you believe yourself at war with Islam or the Arab world). According to the Washington Post’s Ellen Knickmeyer, Yousuf, who is “a senior aide to the ruler of the Persian Gulf state of Dubai,” always has the same “galling” experience on entering the country:
“A U.S. airport immigration official typically takes Yousuf’s passport, places it in a yellow envelope and beckons. Yousuf tells his oldest son and other family members not to worry. And Yousuf — who goes by ‘Your Excellency’ at home — disappears inside a shabby back room. He waits alongside the likes of ‘a man who had forged his visa and a woman who had drugs in her tummy’… He is questioned, fingerprinted and photographed.”
Despite his own fond memories of attending universities in Arizona and Georgia, Yousuf has decided to send his son to college… in Australia. Knickmeyer adds:
“A generation of Arab men who once attended college in the United States, and returned home to become leaders in the Middle East, increasingly is sending the next generation to schools elsewhere. This year, Australia overtook the United States as the top choice of citizens of the United Arab Emirates heading abroad for college, according to government figures here.”
This is what “homeland security” means in the United States today. It means putting your country in full lockdown mode.
This is what “homeland security” means in the United States today. It means putting your country in full lockdown mode. It means the snarl at the border, the nasty comment in the waiting room, the dirty cell, the handcuffs, even the chains. It means being humiliated. It means a thorough lack of modulation or moderation. Arriving here now always threatens to be a “tempest-tost” experience whether you are a citizen, a semi-official visitor, or a foreign tourist. (After all, even Sen. Ted Kennedy found himself repeatedly on a no-fly list without adequate explanation.) Think of these three cases as snapshots from the borders of a country in which the presumption of innocence is slowly being drained of all meaning.
News from Nowhere
So far, of course, we’ve only been talking about the lucky ones…
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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt