Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
STEP 5: AUGUST 29, 2005
I’m a runner.
The security line stretched across the second-floor balcony of the terminal, wound around the check-in counters downstairs, then continued for another hundred feet outside the door. It was clear that it would be at least an hour and a half before any of us arrived at our gates.
I was on my way to New York to promote a book I’d written, The Game. Though I was worried no one in the media would care about my adventures with a cabal of pickup artists, fortunately my schedule was packed with press: Good Morning America, The View, Anderson Cooper 360°, and dozens of radio shows across the country. Ultimately, most of those shows would be canceled or pre-empted. A new catastrophe was about to shock the nation.
I ran to my grandmother’s house when Michael Zucker threatened to beat me up after school. I ran to a hotel to hide from the wrath of a jealous girlfriend when she caught me talking to an ex. I ran over fallen protesters to avoid the spray of rubber bullets when a police riot broke out during a concert I was covering outside the Democratic National Convention.
As I waited in the security lane, I realized that the America we grew up in is not the same America that exists now. Most tourists have horror stories of customs agents unnecessarily detaining, mistreating, humiliating, or refusing entry to them or their friends. Several travelers, with all their papers in order, have even died in custody.
We’ve become our own worst ambassadors.
When danger occurs, the fight or flight instinct kicks in. And since I’m a small person with little fists and a quiet voice, fleeing offers my best option for survival.
As I neared the checkpoint, I overheard a young, doughy security guard talking about a high-speed lane.
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but is there a faster line?” I asked hopefully.
“They’re making one,” he said.
“All you have to do to use it is register for it.”
“How do I do that?”
“You go down to a special office, get a background check, get fingerprinted, and get an iris scan.”
I’m not proud to be a runner. A real man, according to action movies and most women, stays and fights. A wimp runs.
My heart froze. The words “iris scan” filled my mind with images of the movie Gattaca, along with dozens of other Orwellian dystopias. The thought of moving to another country came roaring back to me.
But I’d rather be a living wimp than a dead hero.
How many baby steps into the abyss would it take before I finally had the courage to climb out?
I imagined the Mrs. Kaufmans of the future writing a timeline of events leading to America’s abandonment of the promise stated in its pledge of allegiance, “liberty and justice for all”:
2001: 9/11 terrorist attacks; 1,200 people arrested and held indefinitely without charge; Bush signs USA PATRIOT Act, allowing the government to secretly wiretap and search the personal records of citizens without a warrant; war in Afghanistan begins; no-fly list created, eventually growing to over a million names.
As a child, I used to collect War Cards. I’d seen them advertised on TV and talked my parents into ordering them. Every month, a new set of index cards arrived in the mail, detailing different aspects of World War II.
2002: Male immigrants and visitors from over twenty-five countries required to register with the U.S. government; more than thirteen thousand registrants face deportation; Department of Justice allows FBI to spy on religious and political groups without probable cause; Bush doctrine of preemptive war announced; Homeland Security Act passed; Department of Justice memo authorizes torture up to “serious physical injury” in overseas interrogations.
My parents probably thought the cards were educational. They didn’t realize that each War Card formed a new scar in my imagination:
2003: Iraq War begins; Department of Homeland Security established; Operation Liberty Shield detains visitors seeking asylum from thirty-four Muslim countries; Bush continues to centralize and expand power through the unprecedented use of executive privilege and signing statements, which enable him to ignore or reinterpret bills that have passed Congress.
As I read War Cards about the Allied bombing that destroyed the city center of Dresden, the Battle of Okinawa that left nearly one-third of the civilian population dead, and the Nazi siege of Leningrad that took the lives of 1.5 million residents, I prayed I would never get crushed by the same sledgehammer of history.
2004: Department of Homeland Security begins affixing electronic monitoring ankle bracelets to thousands of illegal immigrants; government outsources domestic intelligence collection to private companies to circumvent laws restricting spying on citizens; US-VISIT system requires all foreign visitors to be digitally photographed, fingerprinted, and checked against a computer database on entry; photos of prisoners tortured in Abu Ghraib prison surface; subsequent Red Cross investigations find evidence of prisoners being sexually abused, set on fire, and forced to eat a baseball at Guantánamo Bay.
Like friendly fire in combat, the government’s war on terrorism had wounded its own country instead. And, consequently, every terrorist had won. Even the bungling shoe-bomber Richard Reid had affected the lives of millions of Americans, making it necessary to remove our shoes every time we pass through airport security.
When I turned eighteen, I received another type of war card in the mail. The government sent me a white postcard with a picture of a birthday cake on the front. On the back I was ordered to report to my local post office to register in case a draft was instituted. I went to sleep countless nights over the next seven years hoping our country wouldn’t get swept into another major war. I didn’t want to end up as a statistic on a War Card of the future.
At the security conveyer belt on the way to New York, I did the airport shuffle—removing my shoes, belt, watch, sweater, and computer—and placed them in trays. That was when I noticed the posted sign: PLEASE BE AWARE THAT ANY INAPPROPRIATE JOKES TO SECURITY MAY RESULT IN YOUR ARREST.
This seemed like more than just a violation of the First Amendment. It was an assault on my sense of humor. Warning people that all jokes would be taken literally would have been just as effective as actually making them criminal.
On a previous flight, I recalled seeing a middle-aged Hispanic man in handcuffs led away roughly by three officers. When I asked a stewardess what had happened, she explained, “He made an inappropriate comment to TSA officials. They don’t have much tolerance for things like that anymore.”
I felt my identity as an American—based on the lack of this type of state control over individuals—slipping out of my grasp.
Because of the War Cards and the draft, the government became like John Wayne Gacy in my mind. It was yet another force that could rip my life from me without giving me any say in the matter—and with no regard for who I was or whether I was a good or bad person.
The only thing that reassured me as I sat disillusioned on the five-hour flight was the knowledge that this wasn’t the first time in history when Americans had lost freedoms in times of conflict, with dubious results.
In 1798, on the verge of war with France, John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it illegal to publish criticism of the government and giving authorities nearly free rein to deport foreign residents. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus and imprisoned over 13,000 suspected traitors without a trial. In response to a series of anarchist bombings during and after World War I, Woodrow Wilson ordered the arrest of 10,000 alleged radicals, deporting any who weren’t citizens. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II. And during the Eisenhower administration, more than 10,000 alleged Communists were blacklisted, imprisoned, or fired from their jobs.
If I were ever drafted or hunted by the government, I told myself, I would run. I used to wonder whether Vietnam draft dodgers were happy in Canada or if they missed home. When villains in movies raced for the Mexican border, I always hoped they’d make it to freedom. And I was amazed that Roman Polanski was able to avoid the legal repercussions of having sex with a minor just by escaping to France.
So perhaps the natural inclination to want both freedom and security from our government is too much to ask. Especially considering that, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll, these presidents (with the exception of Wilson) are among the ten most popular in U.S. history.
Foreign countries began to represent safety to me. If things ever got bad in America, I knew there was always somewhere else to go where I could have new experiences and meet new people. War was for people who cared about power. Peace was for those who cared about life.
But what happens when your government gives you neither freedom nor security?
I would discover the answer to that question, as would every other American, when I landed.