Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part III. ESCAPE
I flew back to Los Angeles, determined to gather the material I needed for my citizenship application as quickly as possible.
To obtain my criminal record, I sent a letter to the FBI, along with a set of rolled-ink fingerprints and a certified check for eighteen dollars. The government claimed that it wouldn’t keep my prints on file after the process was complete, and I hoped this was true. Though I didn’t plan on committing any crimes, there may come a time when I want to escape with my second passport, and I wouldn’t want my fingerprints to give my identity away.
Perhaps I was more like the paranoiacs at the Sovereign Society conference than I cared to admit.
To get my passport pictures, I visited a small photography services store in Koreatown. “Don’t smile,” the owner instructed me. “The government doesn’t like smiling in them these days.”
Between the black shirt I was wearing and the grim expression on my face, I looked like just the kind of mobster who would create a new identity in St. Kitts.
My next errand was the HIV test. I found it strange that AIDS was the only disease the Kittitian government worried about. And though I was always safe, the problem with health exams is that they open possibilities one doesn’t consider before taking them. After all, every test has the possibility of being failed. If I were HIV-positive, then this whole attempt to save myself would be pointless. In the grand scheme of things, health trumps nationality every time.
Fortunately, my white blood cells were as clean as my criminal record.
My last task was the one I dreaded most: paying the bill. I called the mortgage agent who’d helped me get my home in L.A. She sent an appraiser to my house, estimated the value, and loaned me the money I needed, no questions asked. This was before the mortgage market crashed and she was forced to fire her staff, sell her dream home, and watch helplessly as her annual income dropped from seven figures to five.
Rather than being exciting, the loan was terrifying. If my quest was for freedom, going deeper into debt was the worst way to attain it.
Finally, I put everything in an envelope and sent it to Maxwell, hoping he wouldn’t abscond with the money and go golfing somewhere. My future lay in his hands.
As I waited for him to submit the application, I continued my search for a Swiss bank account. After getting shut down by AIG, I’d contacted half a dozen other banks in Switzerland. Every one of them had also turned me down. So I decided to dig deeper and figure out why no one would take my money.
I began calling every Swiss bank I could, until I finally found one that accepted clients from the United States. The name of the institution: Arab Bank. Unfortunately, it didn’t accept initial deposits of less than half a million dollars.
Frustrated, I pulled out my notes from the Sovereign Society conference and called the Swiss branch of Jyske Bank.
“I’d like to open an account for you, but if we take a U.S. citizen, we risk your government closing our banks in the United States,” a male employee named Kim informed me. “But we have clients from one hundred and eighty countries, so at least we can still serve one hundred and seventy-nine of them.”
“Why won’t anyone do business with Americans?”
A few years ago, Kim explained, the United States started requiring Swiss banks to designate the American government a “qualified intermediary”—which means that the bank has to report information on American clients to the U.S. government, withhold a percentage of interest paid to the account, and file tax forms with the IRS. In addition, the U.S. now required Swiss banks to register with the Securities Exchange Commission if they wanted to do business with American citizens.
Jyske chose not to register, Kim said, because “it will compromise secrecy.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Bank privacy for a U.S. citizen, like many other freedoms, was basically a thing of the past.
“It’s a strange time to be an American,” I told him.
“It definitely is.” I felt like he wasn’t just saying that to be polite, but he actually sympathized.
Spencer had once given me a list of signs that meant it was time to leave a country. They included the government sealing its borders, banning the press, or forbidding citizens to move money offshore. The Nazi regime, for example, made it illegal to have foreign accounts. One of the reasons the Swiss originally drafted bank secrecy laws was that three Germans were executed after the Nazis discovered they held foreign bank accounts.
“Can you do business with people from St. Kitts?” I asked Kim before hanging up.
“Good to know.”
As the weeks passed and I waited to hear from Maxwell, I wondered what else I needed to do to prepare for a future visible only through gathering storm clouds.
Guns. Planes. Submarines.
Spencer’s words kept coming back to me. And though I wasn’t about to take a third mortgage on my house to buy a submarine, perhaps I was avoiding the real work. Because it meant reinventing not just my nationality, but reinventing myself.
Guns. Planes. Submarines.
It meant not just becoming like those I made fun of, but becoming even more extreme than them.
Guns. Planes. Submarines.
I wasn’t that crazy. I’d found my island paradise. That was all I needed. Or so I thought—until the smallest disaster in the world changed my mind.