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Returning to America –further thoughts

I have just received several emails from readers saying that their experience in coming into the United States was far different and far more friendly and accommodating than the one that passengers on my plane encountered. They suggest that maybe our entry was an aberration or specific to that particular airport.

I truly hope so. I want to believe that the excitement that travelers from other countries feel as they enter into the United States is supported and reinforced by the welcome they receive as they step off the plane. This is a wonderful country, and it should welcome and embrace travelers. As Emma Lazarus’ famous poem says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .”

Most travelers entering our country are neither poor nor huddled masses, but they are assuredly all tired. We need to meet them as we would meet them if they arrived at the door of our homes, excited about a visit.


This land is your land? Re-entering America.

Here is the embarrassment:

I get off the plane in Amsterdam and see a sign asking me to choose door A or B depending on whether or not I have anything to declare. I do not, so I choose the “nothing to declare” door. I walk right out into the street where I am part of everyone else and no longer sequestered behind an imaginary boundary that separates the fliers from the non-fliers. I can just get in a car and drive away.

Entering Iceland, the same thing.

Now, welcome to America:

We get off the plane and are herded into a holding area. These are Americans, Germans, Icelanders, and a smattering of other folks. Blessedly, most speak English, so the lack of signage in any language other than English is not a great problem. But the young men shouting orders to us in rapid-fire English are. They seem to see themselves as police officers or para-military, so they hector and badger and shout out in humorless, flat tones, telling us to get in line, have our passports ready, and not to use our cell phones or take photographs. If your English isn’t good enough for you to understand their particular patois, you are shouted at even more aggressively, as if you might be thinking of making a direct contact with Osama Bin Laden or planning to beam cell phone photos back to some angry mullah who is mapping the interiors of all American airports. And God help you if you don’t understand at all and cross one of the lines or walk into some area in violation of the shouted orders.

Now, keep in mind that these are tired travelers who are, or were, excited to get to America, the land of freedom and opportunity. Their English is imperfect, they don’t know where their baggage is, they don’t know if or where the people who are there to meet them are, they don’t know what is happening, and they don’t know how long they’ll be held in containment. All they know is that they are being yelled at and told to stand in line and not do anything that might hint of documentation or communication. Some of them are eighty years old.

The lines, of which there are four, funnel into three booth areas, where a humorless young man or women asks some questions, scrutinizes passports, makes everyone not American — little kids and eighty year olds included — ink their fingers and give two fingerprints, then remove any glasses and stand still for photographing. Children are crying; businessmen are grumbling; the elderly are in wheel chairs or standing at their walkers. But you’d better not move — it might be a terrorist rush or an attempt to send a satellite signal to the caves of Tora Bora.

The line moves glacially. Each person takes anywhere from one to five minutes. There are three lines and probably three hundred folks. Do the math. Then imagine you’re a young mother with a two year old and an infant, or an eighty year old in a walker.

Oh, and lest you think you can crab and complain, right past the booths is a wall covered with one way glass. Should you make a ruckus or show exasperation, I am sure that other humorless folks are duly noting it and photographing you or sending signals to the booths to flag your passport or mark an “x” by your name.

In general, you have found yourself in a world where there is a subterranean current of anger that has been formalized into procedure, where you feel watched and mistrusted, and where you feel that the government is not your friend, and you are not theirs. You are, in effect, guilty until proven innocent.

I wanted to shout out to the people who only minutes before had been laughing and talking excitedly about visiting the Mall of America or going to see their relatives in Iowa that this is not America, that we are not like this.

But I couldn’t. It would have been a subversive act.

And all I could think of as I watched the excited faces of the little children lose their smiles and fill with worry and concern, is that if this is what takes place for a group of mostly Icelanders arriving at a B level airport in a Scandinavian/German city in the middle of America, what is it like for a Middle Easterner or southeast Asian arriving in Detroit or New York or Chicago O’Hare?

It was a sad and sobering experience, and not one that made me proud to be an American.

Sorry, Woody. This land is no longer “made for you and me,” it’s made up of “us” and “them.” And everyone entering America is “them” until proven otherwise.


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