So since it looks like I’ll be traveling quite a bit in the foreseeable future, I thought it might be an idea to register with Homeland Security’s trusted-traveler program and thus avoid the hassle and long lines at airport security. Which is how come I turned up yesterday at SeaTac’s US Customs and Border Protection office for my interview.
I did kind of wonder how it might go in light of the fact that The First Muslim has just been published. What would Homeland Security make of this? Should I even mention it? Were they likely to make a biographer of Muhammad a trusted traveler, or would stereotype win the day so that the subject alone would set off alarms in the bureaucratic mind? There was only one way to find out.
The interview didn’t start off on quite the right note.
“Sorry to hear about Margaret Thatcher’s passing,” said the Customs and Borders officer when I told him that I had a British passport as well as an American one.
“I can’t say I am,” I replied before I could bite my tongue. “Not least because my father was a doctor in the National Health Service, which she did her best to dismantle.”
“Sorry,” he said, “I shouldn’t make assumptions.”
And with that he had my interest. I hadn’t expected that apology.
“You’re a writer?” he said. “What do you write about?”
“Religion and politics.” And with that I had his interest.
“Big subject!” he said.
“Which you could say is why we’re here in this office right now,” I replied.
We both smiled kind of ruefully.
He pulled up the US customs record of my travels. “So you focus on the Middle East?”
“Of course. It’s where all three of the major monotheisms began, and it’s where religion and politics are most intricately intertwined.”
“Isn’t that so,” he said. “In fact that’s what I studied.” Turns out he’d majored in Middle East history — specifically the 1920s to the 1940s. “The Brits seem to have had a lot to do with creating today’s Middle East.”
“With a little help from the French, true,” I said. “They have a lot to answer for. As do we, especially since we went marching into Iraq with no idea of what was really happening there…” Oh god, what was I saying to an official of the US government?
Yet he was nodding, though whether in agreement or in acknowledgment of my hopelessly liberal point of view wasn’t clear until he said: “We all need to know much more history.”
And that was my cue. I reached into my pocket and handed him my card — the one with the cover of The First Muslim on the front. “This might help some,” I said.
He studied it a moment, and then: “Interesting! Thank you. I have to read this.”
The next thing I knew he was taking my photograph and my fingerprints (on a neat little machine glowing with green light), explaining the intricacies of how to use my newly approved trusted-traveler status, and giving me his card.
As I picked up a coffee before wandering out of the airport, it occurred to me to ask why I was surprised at how relaxed and sensible the interview had been.
Partly, I think, we’re so used to inane encounters with low-level TSA contract employees in the security lines that it’s easy to forget that there actually are intelligent people higher up the line.
Partly, as an immigrant to the US, my experience years ago of dealing with another branch of what is now Homeland Security, namely the Immigration and Naturalization Service, had been downright Kafkaesque. (In fact I’d have said that the INS officials I encountered then had deliberately out-Kafkaed Kafka, except that I knew they’d never even heard of him.)
And partly too, of course, there’s the Orwellian Big Brother aspect of Homeland Security — the awareness that one way or another, we are all, however innocent, under surveillance.
That may be one more thing the Brits, among others, have to answer for.
Keep in mind the location where you interviewed. Your experience might have been very different if you were in Alabama or Arkansas for example……
What a joy to encounter a positive experience when you least expect it.
good job, Leslie! … nice to see you picture shining out from the pages last Sunday’s NYT
I’m glad the fellow was respectful. But the system itself is the problem: the fact that you had to go in and have an interview in order to be able to travel freely about the world without hassles is unacceptable.
love this, Leslie….we are so tuned into the very real Orwellian world of today that we are constantly on guard….expecting the worst all the time!
and cuedos for being honest about your country of origin….true love of country only comes when we recognize all frailities and acknowledge them…
You are lucky that he was a fan of yours. It is such a pity that the common person usually meets the ‘low level contract employee’ and they are the face of the government. The whole world carries the low level image in their minds and not of the erudite and educated boss sitting in a back office.
He wasn’t a fan — just an intelligent, educated man alert to his own assumptions, and doing a tricky job well.
I am as distrustful as anyone (notice I did not say paranoid, which is by definition irrational) about security and our loss of freedoms, but I know Janet Napolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security) pretty well (she used to be governor of Arizona, where I live) and there is no one I would prefer to entrust my security to. It’s really a hassle getting on an airplane now, but it may be the safest place on earth. There are many trade-offs, and no one wants to be inconvenienced, and for me it is NOT better to be safe than free, but it’s always good to see each other as human beings.
To be honest, I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t have been surprised the other way ’round, either, but I’ve regularly met awesome folks who are in non-awesome jobs, or who choose to make their jobs the best with what they can do. Thrilled to hear your report. Also curious to know of how much benefit the frequent-traveler thing is… have thought of doing it myself. Worth the effort? Let us know.
And you’ve seen this, right? “Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport,” by the Onion?
I really enjoyed your piece but I did feel that your comment about there actually being higher up workers who are intelligent might have been a bit of a generalization. I am sure there are many low-level workers who are just as intelligent, who may not have had the same opportunities as others. I really like your work, just wanted to point that out!
Fair point. Thanks, Holly. — L.