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Several years ago, Curmie was re-entering the US after escorting a cadre of students to Dublin and London on a Study Abroad trip. He intentionally positioned himself last among the group heading through immigration, only to be told that he had to follow the officer because… well… because. So, while students phoned their awaiting parents that yes, they’d landed, but that their group leader was being led away by The Man, Curmie was sent off to a room somewhere in the Customs/Immigration complex at George Bush International Airport in Houston.
Curmie was told to stand in that line over there, so he did. He looked around and noticed that literally everyone else in the room was either in uniform or looked either Hispanic or Middle Eastern. After five minutes of waiting in a line that didn’t move at all, Curmie was then ordered to go sit down. So he did. In the back, he could see a cluster of Junior G-Men huddled around his confiscated passport, glancing at it, then at him, mumbling to each other. After ten minutes of this bad community theatre production of How to Pretend to Be Doing Something, one of the agents called Curmie up to the desk, handed over the passport to told him he was free to go.
With a nod at one of the many posters adorning the walls, all of them crowing about INS’s alleged “transparency,” Curmie asked if “this” (by which he meant but did not say aloud “this clown show”) would likely happen again. The agent, an African-American woman perhaps 20 years old and 100 pounds, drew herself up to her full glory and proclaimed, “I don’t know. You have a common name.”
Well, in one sense, that’s true. According to whitepages.com (and if you can’t trust some random website, who can you trust?), there are over 13,000 folks in this country alone with the same first and last names as Curmie’s. The chances that one of us is a bad guy are pretty good. But if you throw in a middle name, a suffix, and a freaking passport number, and I’d suspect the field might just be narrowed a little, yes? Naturally, I suppressed the urge to make this observation—or to burst into laughter—until I was well clear of the authority of the DHS, INS, or whatever other acronymic idiocracy might hold sway.
All of this happened nearly seven years ago, however, so it’s hardly news. Except that it just happened again a couple of weeks ago. Curmie was just in London for a short trip with his boss, and returned to the States via Dulles. There’s a new (or at least new to Curmie) electronic procedure that makes going through Immigration and Customs smoother, at least in theory. But once again, Curmie set off alarms (not literally): there was a big X through half of the “receipt” that substitutes for a Customs declaration card. So Curmie went where directed, responded truthfully to the three questions asked by the agent (the most important of which was clearly about whether Curmie had ever gone by another name (specifically Curmie’s surname with a different first name with the same initial). The agent said he couldn’t clear me. So off we went to Line C; all Curmie could think of was Arlo Guthrie’s Group W bench. There did not appear to be any father-rapers there, however.
At least this time the process was faster and far more efficient. The agent was thoroughly professional, apologized for the fact that the other agent hadn’t simply cleared me (which apparently he could have), and sent me on my way. I asked about why Curmie had to go through this process again. Yep, there are a lot of people with my same first and last name: they are in fact the 8th and 5th most common names, respectively, in the country. The agent said he hoped he’d made it so this wouldn’t happen again. I told him this was the second time in my last six trips abroad. He shook his head somewhat ruefully, scowled at his computer, and repeated what he’d just said, with a little more emphasis on the “hope” part.
This got followed, of course, by the inane requirement of going through airport security again, a procedure that wastes considerable time and pots of money to do nothing substantive beyond forcing that one guy who bought a bottle of water after clearing security in Rome (or wherever) to dump it out before flying to Cleveland (or wherever) because SECURITY. Since very few bags are actually checked at Customs, sending the majority of them on their way to their final destination without ever putting them back in the hands of the traveler while continuing random (or not so random) checks would reduce the absurd lines by 80% or more.
There are, of course, greater wastes of money than the follies attending to entering the country. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t pay attention to stupidity when it happens. There is a political dynamic to all this, of course, but not one that breaks along party lines: Curmie has been stopped by representatives of the Bush and Obama administrations, and it will—assurances from the agent at Dulles notwithstanding—probably happen again in the next administration. Because, as Curmie has been saying for a very long time, the DHS (at least in this manifestation), much like the TSA, is much more about the appearance of security than in security itself. Perhaps because of his background in theatre, Curmie looks at these little scenaria as a bad magic show: the diversion is supposed to convince us that the world is safer, but even a reasonably attentive observer knows that it is not, and the need to be perceived as being safe is perhaps the clearest indication of our lack of real safety. If you have to tell me, in other words, it ain’t so.
After all, if you’re going to go to the trouble of forging a passport that can fool both a computer and a live agent, the chances are pretty good you’re not going to change your name from Walter Smith to William Smith, right? You’re going to be William Anderson or Samuel Walters or Heinrich Pofflewitzel or something. And if you can clear someone in a matter of seconds, why not do it? Answer: because you need to look as if you’re actually doing something. In the world of “national security,” appearance trumps reality 10 times out of 10.
The waste of resources, not to mention the fact that I’d have been pushing it to make my connecting flight if it hadn’t been delayed, is troubling. What’s worse, however, is the utter laxity surrounding the entire process except as manifested in remarkably silly charades.