Monday, July 27, 2015
I stand in line waiting for my turn. Sleepy and confused, after a 3 hour fly and a 24 hour sleepless mark, I arrive to Miami International Airport. I have heard that Miami International airport is a huge airport and, therefore, a huge mess. As I wait in the endless line (about an hour and a half later) and get closer to the custom checkpoint I begin to “pick” the officer I want to be interviewed by. I don’t have many options but I look for friendliness or, at least, not a rude contact. A military-like scream breaks my concentration as one of the officers yells at a civilian who dared to advance in line without his previous authorization, “STOP! I didn’t tell you to move”. We stand quietly. Definitely, I know which line not to go.
I recall that story as I wait in line, again, for security check on our way to Atlanta from Columbus. A list of direction fill the air like a mantra: “Take your shoes off, put your laptop by itself, each item in a separate tray”. The orders are straightforward. We all perform them in a ceremony like motion, some of us getting unnecessarily nervous. Trying to pick the right officer, trying not to miss the directions, trying to be aware and submissive, trying to not give a reason to argue, but why? An officer’s voice breaks my thoughts “I said, put the laptop by itself!”, he speaks loud. The person he is addressing to looks nervous and afraid, she freezes briefly not sure if she understood. Somebody else helps her. That’s it! The fear of doing something wrong and the possible consequences is what makes some of us sweat and breathe deeply as we approach these security points in the US.
Things have changed since 9/11, that’s for sure. In 2003, during Bush’s Administration, the CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) was created. This branch of the US Homeland Security Department was the result of merging the duties of Customs Services and Border Patrol into a single and more effective unit. The Customs officer who checked my documents in Miami informed me about the unit and its security procedure as he took my fingerprints and a picture (I was able to “pick” a friendly Latino descendent as my Custom officer. He chatted about the CBP’s creation, his duties on the field, his work done in the Mexican border 5 years ago. During that time he learned spanish, and he was proud of his Mexican accent. I didn’t want to shatter his dreams but he sounded pretty caribbean to me).
As result of 9/11 the Patriot Act was signed, prioritizing homeland security's procedures and attacking civil liberties, with consequences that last until today. As result of 9/11 the fine line between privacy and security was crossed, and with it came a huge division, just as George W. Bush declared a war “between good and evil”. There was a difference between “USA” and the “Others” which resulted in major inequalities and discrimination, racial profiling, religious targeting, and higher levels of deportation. In the process of protecting themselves we, the “Others”, feared and still fear the possible consequences of not being one of “US”.
My colleague from China comments, as we chat about security checkpoints, that after 9/11 “America lost its innocence”. I partially agree with her.
The anxiety we might feel from those military like procedures (without mentioning the invasive ones, like X-ray machines and extra body padding) comes from a vulnerability the US feels, the fear of being victims of an attack in their own territory again. There is no doubt the high impact such incident caused in the political and cultural set of mind in United States citizens and government. But I would personally consider that 9/11 magnified something that was there before, America had lost its innocence many decades ago, possibly centuries, and the outcome reads as a culture of fear.
I remember watching the news before 9/11 in United States. There was always something “scary” to watch at 5 o’clock news, something along the lines of: “....And when we come back! Something in your food might be killing you during your sleep. After the break we will tell you what it is”. It is not surprising that a satirical newspaper pointed out the terrorist attack as “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” since Hollywood had done its share to increase fear and paranoia, and still does.
GUNS AND COFFEE: CULTURE OF FEAR
After going through a security checkpoint on my way to Columbus a T-shirt logo calls my attention. I spot a person’s back with the logo of a commercial coffee shop, I recognized the mermaid that is part of it, but the name of the coffee shop has been replaced by the words “Guns and Coffee”.
It is worldwide known the current problems the US is facing regarding the right of guns ownership. During my three weeks stay in the United States 2 major events have been part of the news: a shooting in Tennessee killing 4 marines and a sailor, and a shooting in a Louisiana movie theater killing two women.
President Obama has voiced his frustration these days because of the impossibility of creating better guns legislation, but I wonder: Regulating or prohibiting guns access will solve the problem? All I can think of is Sandra Bland stepping up to the fear she is supposed to feel towards the authority and denying to put her cigarette out. All I can think of is the police officer feeling fearful, anxious and angry. Another story that didn’t end well during the past weeks. Guns are a problem, but fearful people can be as dangerous as a loaded gun.
The culture of fear is permeating other areas of US society. Fears from the past have raised up stronger than ever. If during Post 9/11 the Middle Easterns took it hard, nowadays the African Americans are the fearful suspects and victims of fear as well, who will be next? Without having answers to my own questions I wonder, what would have happened if I misheard a cue in the security check, moved too fast or too slow, or just simply didn’t understand the language?, after all it is a foreign country airport with a foreign language. Fear is in the air and “we”, “us”, “the others” are breathing it all at the same time.