Reminiscent of communist countries, Obama’s photograph greeted me on my arrival at the Los Angeles airport. “Welcome to the United States of America.” Typically when I hear someone say “the United States of America” instead of “America”, my heart starts to beat faster. I know I am usually facing someone arrogant and nationalistic, someone vicariously proud of the achievements of the US but lacking his own. He is likely a couch potato who thinks that when “his” team wins it somehow reflects well on him. This is the definition of a fanatic. Communication with such people is invariably impossible and irrational, for they don’t reason; they come from a self-proclaimed position of superiority, with nothing to show for it.
I like people being able to express their nationalistic, sexist, and racist feelings. How else can I challenge them? But when such feelings are expressed by a gun-trotting, insensitive, unaccountable immigration or TSA agent, who by “law” can never do any wrong, and to who whatever I say can be used against me, I am usually at a loss of words.
When a US immigration guy asks if I intend to work in the US, should I say that I am a free human being and will live and work wherever I want to? Or should I say that the US is no longer an attractive jurisdiction for new immigrants? Should I say that whether I am married or not—a question I was always asked as long as I held the Indian passport—is none of his business? Should I charge him for being racist? Should I tell him that asking me about what I am carrying in my bag is an uncivilized question? And should I alert them that when they so mechanically and single-mindedly looking for water bottles and toiletries, they are failing to critically look for other dangerous items that might get smuggled in?
When they ask me if the purpose of my visit is personal or business, I have no option but to lie, for anyone who loves what he does, the two are intertwined. “Answer me in yes or no,” the officer would instruct me during my naïve days when I wanted to respond truthfully before signing. When dealing with bureaucracies one must rehearse what one would say. One must play in one’s mind several possible scenarios before the encounter, to check for any flaws in the to-be told story. One must know how to speak half-truths. And perhaps even an outright lie when one can get away with it. One must accept that one is dealing with an automaton, someone with no feelings and respect for the fact that he is a servant of those who pay taxes. Despite all the rehearsals, one still finds one’s statements twisted and misconstrued by the arrogant bureaucrat. And then one is admonished—with no right to object—by the TSA.
Here is an Indian joke: One guy used to beat up his wife every evening, on one pretext or another. One day he brought a certain vegetable for dinner preparation. Three different kinds of dishes could be made out of that vegetable. She knew that if she made one kind, he would beat her, accusing her for not preparing the other. Adamant that she wanted to avoid getting beaten that day, she decided that she would split the vegetable into three parts and prepare all three dishes. She and her toddler son would have eaten whatever her husband had not. Unfortunately, just before the husband came home, her son defecated on the kitchen floor. She knew her husband now had a reason to beat her. Thinking quickly, she covered it with a pot, hoping to clean it up when her husband had gone to sleep. When she put the dinner in front of her husband, as expected, he became very angry, for he wanted a different kind of dish. Promptly, she produced it. Of course he changed his mind and said he actually wanted the third version of the dish. So, she produced the third version. Feeling very agitated, for he had failed to find a reason to beat her, he lashed out that he wanted to eat poop. She uncovered the pot. This joke is similar to my many encounters with the TSA and US immigration.
Despite the above, over the last one year, I had found TSA and custom officials in the US smiling more and being more considerate. I had been impressed that they had ignored small faults and had smiled at me. When I opted out of the porno-scanners, they very courteously called for someone to pat me down. Moreover, making me less defensive was the fact that for the last three months I had been traveling around in Asia. In Singapore, security check—done by private security—has hardly any line-ups and is very quick and courteous. In Thailand and Malaysia, security screening is more of a show than reality. In none of these places or in China or Hong Kong do you encounter a busybody.
I know of no country other than the US that requires you to go through an immigration process, pick up your baggage from the carousel and then check it back in and redo full security and the immigration routine again, even if you are merely transiting through the US. In other countries, you would be allowed to proceed straight to your other plane unhindered.
I had a connecting flight in LA and I was getting late. Those in a hurry were given special coupons by my airline for a separate lane, so that they could be processed quickly. Alas, there was no immigration officer for that line. Three immigration officers were standing right in front of us, jokingly negotiating if one of them should go to the booth and process us. But they had no interest in such trifles. I have a Global Entry card that allows me the option to go through iris-scan at a machine instead of talking with an immigration officer. Whenever possible I prefer this option. Given that I was stuck in that non-moving line, I asked the TSA automaton if I could leave and go to the machine. Very confidently she told me that my card would not work in LA and shouted that I should learn to respect the rules. When she went elsewhere to satisfy her ego, I sneaked out to check-out through the machine, which did work for me. I am still very surprised—despite frequent encounters like this—when I consider that she was required to know just four or five simple things in life but she still failed.
Now in a panic mode, I waited for my bag, which was delayed. After collecting it I ran towards the customs, not realizing that they now have a red marker for people to stay back from the custom officers while they deal with one person at a time. I saw the red mark a bit too late; and two officers were already hurling abuses at me. Unlike custom officers elsewhere, who mostly stand in a corner and who come to you only if they must open your bags—a rarity—the ones in LA sit in chairs, looking carefully at each form.
But they must sit. Their physique is such that there is no way their knees would accept them for too long if they stayed standing. One must ask if such obese agents who cannot take care of themselves are capable of taking care of me. One must ask what is so intellectual about those custom forms that they should require officers to mull over them at length.
Malaysia no longer requires you to fill any kind of form whatsoever. If you are a citizen, resident or a frequent flyer, you don’t fill up any form or talk with anyone in HK or Singapore. Often I am out of these airports within minutes after my plane lands. This could be counter-intuitive to arrogant bureaucrats, but making a major song and dance about security, making it complicated and slow, and mostly stupid, has made the US airports and airspace—and increasingly that of Canada—very unhealthy and unsafe.
My next task was to recheck my bag and then go back for security screening. The TSA officer verifying IDs was joking with everyone. I was itching to move on. But he was in no mood to let people through. He was in a long, never-ending discussion with two other TSA agents, discussing who among the couple facing him had a more smiley face. He remarked about their ages and how he thought they were so different despite being a couple.
Next, just ahead of me, was a lady with her late-teen daughter. The TSA guy asked the girl to “come forward and show me your pretty face.” I stood with a blank face contemplating if I should object and call for his supervisor. But who am I to object when the mom was obsequiously acknowledging his instruction? Was he a pervert? Of course, for he said what he did in a position of power while he held them and me involuntarily? Did the mom compromise? Of course, she did. The daughter is experiencing and learning things that she will accept as natural when she grows up. That is the recipe of a totalitarian society, where people no longer know their and other people’s personal space. Would I have compromised in the mom’s place? The more Orwellian the US becomes, the more likely it is that I would have. I always do in India.
If I must be abused, I prefer it to be a straightforward abuse. At least there is no moral ambiguity in this. Being held up while he humoured with us was repulsive. It leaves people confused. How do you deal with someone who is seemingly nice to you when he is holding you involuntarily? To me if I must be stopped involuntarily, civilized conduct requires that the officer process me as soon as possible, unless I take the initiative to small-talk.
I refused to smile at his stupid jokes. He found fault in my boarding card. I had to go back and bring an airline agent to get my boarding pass accepted.
I rushed to my gate and I was happy flying out of the US. What an irony! All my childhood, I wanted to move to the US. Some of the nicest snd most generous people I have ever met live in the US. It is still in many ways the greatest place in the world. But the US has chosen to accept tyranny exactly when many other countries are giving it up. Unfortunately, the private sector in the US is so productive that it provides abundant resources to sustain a grotesque and arrogant government. Things do seem to improve once in a while—as I thought they had over the last one year—but it is often one step forward and two steps backwards. I was in error in thinking that TSA had mended its ways. Once you have chosen a path of Statism, an optimist rational person might think that the consequences would provide a feedback to correct the predicament. Alas, the consequences are not so apparent and moreover increased Statism muddles people’s thinking, making them incapable of thinking straight. Perhaps, as in every society in the past, the US must walk the whole path to fuller Statism—like a cataract which must fully develop before being operated on—suffer its consequences in all its nakedness, before there is a chance of a reversal.
[Editor’s Note: If you think the day may be coming when you will have to fly out of the US…permanently…then click here to take this important step for permanent expatriation.]
Jayant Bhandari, a resident of Singapore, is constantly traveling the world to understand it and to look for investment opportunities, particularly in the natural resource sector. He advises institutional investors about his finds. He also runs a yearly seminar in Vancouver entitled “Capitalism & Morality.” Find him at http://jayantbhandari.com.
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