17 August 2004


Several years ago, I flew to Europe for the first time.

I had tried giving myself pre-jet-lag: I had stayed up late and shifted my body clock the day before I left, hoping to get settled into German time more quickly after I arrived as a result. I had just spent ten hours in the noisy, cramped, shaky confines of an airplane. The airport had the familiar-yet-alien feel of a European airport — so similar to American airports, yet not quite the same: is that a phone booth? are those newspaper vending machines? I was meandering through the labrynthine customs and immigration process in the airport, punchy, feeling like I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and everything was more than a little surreal.

I come to a crew-cut young man in a military uniform-ish olive sweater with funny shoulder pads sitting in a little booth. I slide my passport, customs declaration card, and boarding pass through the slot in the window. He looks at them, frowns slightly, then looks at me quizzically. “Zo sorry. Your peppers, zay are nut in order.”

I cannot imagine the expression on my face. I'm a lefty Jew — with ze cherman accent, zeez are a frightening vords, ja? It's 1999, not 1939, so there's nothing to be afraid of. And I'm too weary and bewildered to freak out about anything at this point. On the other hand, I'm weary and bewildered enough to feel a little unsure that it really is 1999, not 1939. Pow!

The man in the booth says, “Is a little joke. You can go.”

I nod, and grimace, and say, “I understand.”

Today, thanks to MKB, I read that a man named Dan Gilmore has some questions about whether he should have to worry about whether his papers are in order.

On the 4th of July 2002, John Gilmore, American citizen, decided to take a trip from one part of the United States of America to another. He went to Oakland International Airport — ticket in hand — and was told he had to produce his ID if he wanted to travel. He asked to see the law demanding he show his "papers" and was told after a time that the law was secret and no, he wouldn’t be allowed to read it.

Bruce Sterling calls this for what it is: not a reasonable response to danger, but a bit of sinister theatrics.

If you've been in airports recently, I believe you are seeing a pretty apt, early version of Terrorspace. At any random moment, you can have your possessions rifled through by strangers. Your shoes are scanned, and various small but vital objects in your pockets can be confiscated by semi- educated security geeks. They're either pathetically under-trained for the job (in which case you certainly feel no safer), or else they are intelligent and capable people (in which case you pity them and wish they had some other job, for the sake of general human happiness and the GNP). Rather than making us any safer, Terrorspace airports serve as political indoctrination centers that humiliate our voting population on a broad scale. They are meant to inure us to ever-escalating levels of governmental clumsiness and general harm.

Like the boiling frog of metaphor, we ask ourselves: what am I going to do? Not fly?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of getting my passport taken from me on a domestic trip, in SF. Me yelling after Man #1 who was walking away to give me my passport back, with Man #2 at the counter trying to assure me that it was just "a routine check" while I insisted "no, it is not. He just took my passport!" And then Man #2 saying, after I got my passport back, "oh, and I didn't mean what I said about the non-American passport and the middle eastern name. That would be racial profiling and we are not allowed to used racial profiling." Yeah. Right.

I don't know what I'll do if air travel gets any worse.
As you know, I'm on the road a lot.
- Yezida