Warning: this blog is an unapologetic rant. But it is also about travel, at least sort of.
I have just flown from Nassau, in The Bahamas, to Houston, in Texas, and from there on to Denver, in Colorado.
If I had been alive in the 1950s and 1960s, to make this trip I would have had to turn up at the airport, show some ID, collect a boarding pass, hand over my bag, and walk onto the plane.
Back then, that was pretty much it. Back then, they had it pretty good.
Today, however, my travel involved a slightly more complex process.
On arriving at the airport check-in my luggage was screened and I had to fill in a form and answer a battery of inane questions. Like: “Are you carrying any explosives?” (I am always amazed by the nature of these queries: one has to have a fairly dim view of a would-be-terrorist’s IQ to think that he or she might actually be inclined to answer: “Yes”).
As my trip involved entering the United States, I also had to provide the check-in agent with an exact address of where I would be staying in the US. This security measure meant that I had to quickly go online to find the zip code of the hotel in my final destination.
I am not an American citizen or permanent resident, so I also had to provide evidence of my entitlement to enter the USA, by quoting my ESTA number (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This is a scheme designed to pre-approve travel to the US for citizens of trusted countries. It was brought in post-9/11 as an anti-terrorism measure. Although as often happens for me, there was a glitch with my ESTA in the computer system. Cue a few more minutes of frantic online checks until it was resolved.
Then I had to go through a secondary security check, where my passport was inspected by a bored Bahamian security official who clearly didn’t give a shit.
This then brought me to the main security hall, and a long queue. After waiting twenty-five minutes I finally reached the primary check-point: a full-body scanner for me, and a baggage scanner for my belongings. I got half-naked by taking off my jacket, belt, shoes and watch, and removing my wallet and phone and loose change from my pockets. As well as emptying my backpack of its electronic contents (in my case quite a process, given that I carry a laptop, iPad, and Kindle when I travel).
I also had to remove all liquid items and place them in a clear-plastic baggie. One item looked biggish, so a security official removed it and studied it closely, until he was absolutely satisfied that it was indeed only shaving gel, and that the bottle was less than the proscribed 100ml limit per item.
Eventually my backpack, clothes, shoes, electronics and toiletries were sent off on multiple plastic trays through a scanner, and another security official indicated I should make my way over to a queue for the machine where I would get scanned.
After another wait I was ushered into a floor-to-ceiling cylindrical tube of glass. I was made to stand on a pair of yellow footprints in the middle, with my hands above my head, like a criminal, while the whizz-bang machine scanned me from head to toe.
I exited the scanner and was told to wait a few seconds while the results were processed. Unfortunately for me, on the security official’s screen a yellow box popped up on the crotch of a stylized diagram of a man.
“Sir, the scan is showing an anomaly in an area I don’t really want to pat down”, the security official said. So at his instruction I went through the full-body scanner a second time, only this time hiking my trousers up as high as I possibly could.
This seemed to fix the problem – no more yellow box on my groin. According to the security official, it was probably just the buttons of my jeans that had set off the alarm. Pretty damn annoying, really, but full marks to the security guy for at least having a sense of humor.
No sooner had I repacked my backpack, reloaded my pockets and put on my jacket / belt / shoes / watch, than I was approached by yet another security official, waving a wand in my face.
“Sir, you have been randomly selected for an explosives test”, he said.
Why is it that I am always the one “randomly” selected for this added security measure? Especially on those occasions when I travel unshaven, thus looking my swarthy Middle-Eastern best.
I held out my hands, opened my bag, and the official touched his wand to me and the bag in various places. He then removed a small swatch of fabric at the tip of the wand, placed it in a machine, and we both waited a few seconds. A green light appeared, and he said I could go. No traces of gunpowder or TNT on me this time!
You might think that by now I would be done. But all that had happened is that I had finally managed to exit The Commonwealth of The Bahamas. I still needed to enter the United States of America.
In Nassau airport, the US Government operates a very helpful facility where travelers to the States can go through all entry formalities before boarding the flight, rather than on arrival in America. So in another hall I joined another queue, leading to another machine, where my passport was scanned (again), as well as my fingerprints being scanned and my photo taken. The machine also asked me to answer another battery of questions of the “do you have any explosives or drugs on you?” kind, again. Lest for some bizarre reason my answers had changed since I originally checked my bags.
After a few moments the machine issued me with a printed receipt, and I took that, my passport and my boarding pass over to a human official behind a desk. He inspected these documents, and proceeded to give me the third degree: Why are you coming to the USA? What do you do for a living? Where will you be staying? He showed me a photo of my checked suitcase on his screen, and asked me to identify it. And he asked to see a copy of my flight ticket to leave the USA – so more frantic online searches needed before I satisfied him on this score.
Before boarding the plane, I was subjected to another secondary security check, where my passport and boarding pass were inspected once more. And then on arrival in Houston, because I left the airport to attend a meeting, I had to do it all over again when it came time to catch my flight to Denver.
So here’s the thing – it might seem like I have just gone through a Hellish ordeal. But I haven’t. No, the reality is that I have just endured what we have all come to consider as an entirely normal process for getting on a plane and flying from Point A to Point B.
I once wrote a piece about the “boiled frog syndrome”. To repeat what I said then, if a frog is dropped into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if dropped into a pot of cold water that is slowly heated, the frog will apparently not notice the gradual change in temperature. Rather, it will remain in the water until it is eventually cooked to death, and quite literally croaks.
Whether the boiled frog syndrome is real is unclear: various folks have conducted frog boiling experiments with no clear proof one way or the other, apart from a bunch of dead frogs. But true or not, “the boiled frog syndrome” aptly describes our quintessentially human capacity to not notice gradual change as it occurs around us, even if it is happening right under our noses.
It occurred to me, as I journeyed from Nassau to Houston to Denver, that when it comes to travelling we are all boiled frogs. Because over the last thirty years we have gradually come to accept as normal that which is absolutely, categorically abnormal.
Which if you think about it is completely fucked-up.
As if to prove the point, in the Houston airport lounge I was watching TV and scrolling through my Facebook feed at the same time.
On the news there was a lot of commentary about recent events in Tunisia, where a heavily armed religiously inspired murderer went on a rampage, massacring more than 30 innocent holiday makers. But that was not the worst of it. A friend had posted on Facebook a link to an article about an absolutely horrific video showing ISIS devotees in Iraq – more religiously inspired murderers – drowning five prisoners in a cage, before blowing up five more prisoners in a car, before stringing explosives around the necks of eight other prisoners and detonating the bombs.
Yet this was all being portrayed as kind of, well, “normal”. Sure, it is horrific and barbaric and terrible, and yes, the media commentators were expressing suitable outrage. But all in a way that was couched in terms of: “this is just more of what happens from time to time in the crazy world we live in, now isn’t it?”
It is sickening. Without noticing it we have come to accept as normal stuff that should have us protesting in the streets. What was once unthinkable is now often little more than filler for the evening news and social media platforms.
Our collective frog has been well and truly boiled.
Finally, after a long journey I got to Denver, and watched more TV late at night in my hotel room. This time mainly coverage of the many candidates lining up for the 2016 US presidential election. And in watching various interviews with various candidates, I kept hoping for the interviewers to ask what I think is perhaps the most pertinent question facing the world today.
But none of them did.
So for the record, here is the (slightly long) question I would pose, if I was ever given the chance:
Dear US Presidential Candidate,
We have a serious problem with religious fundamentalism in the world today. It is a problem that is getting worse, not better, day by day. And to call a spade a spade, right at the moment it seems that this problem is mainly (but not exclusively) a problem with radical Islam.
To be clear, we don’t have a problem with religion in general, or with Islam in general, or with the billions of people around the world who identify as people of faith. But we do have a real and growing problem, globally, with religiously inspired fundamentalists who are willing to kill in the name of their religion.
These are people who hate our Western democratic way of life, and our ideals, and who want to see those of us who don’t agree with their beliefs either submit, or die.
These are people who, in the recent past, have brought what was once unthinkable into our lives.
So we have seen these people fly planes into tall buildings and kill thousands in an instant. We have seen them attack subways and buses and public spaces all around the world. We have seen hijackings and shootings and bombings. We have seen the murder of film-makers and journalists they don’t like, and we have seen the murder of ordinary people doing nothing more sinister than shopping in supermarkets, sunbathing on vacation, or praying peacefully in a house of worship.
We are witnessing, on a daily basis, horrors not seen since the Nazis and Pol Pot. Things like mass torture and mass drownings, videotaped beheadings, and public crucifixions. Unimaginable barbarities which I never thought my young children would see in their lifetimes. Atrocities committed in the name of God, Allah, Jihad, or whatever religious motivation serves to inspire those committing them.
And worst of all, these are not things happening in far off places that do not affect me, and which I can close my eyes to. Because every day, in our daily lives, we are all being held hostage by these religious fanatics.
We are held hostage when we worry about security as we send our children off to school; or when we think twice about where we will go on holiday; or when we turn off the evening news to avoid having to see and hear about yet another awful massacre somewhere in the world. We are held hostage when our newspapers curtail their right to free speech, lest they publish a cartoon that might offend a religious zealot; or when we travel and endure endless security checks; or when we are searched and scanned and questioned a dozen times in a day.
I am not an American, and have no say in the outcome of the US election, but I am a citizen of the world, and these are matters that affect me very personally. So how you chose to deal with these matters affects me very personally, too.
My question then is simple: as President of the United States, the most powerful nation on earth, what are you going to do to confront fundamentalist religious terrorism head-on? What are you going to do to break the cycle we are in, to change the direction we are heading in, and to ensure that we stop being gradually boiled like frogs in a pot of hot water?
So that when our children and grandchildren look back at us now, they will think: “fuck me, wasn’t that a bad time?”, rather than: “wow, back then they had it pretty good”.
OK, if I was actually posing this question to a US Presidential candidate, I’d probably leave out the “fuck me” bit. Or I’d leave it in, and blame it on me being an Aussie.
But you get the point: there are lots of words being said all the time, and a lot of pussy-footing around in the name of political correctness, and a lot of bigoted rhetoric in the name of populism. And whilst I am not naïve – these are complex issues with no simple answers or magic bullet solutions – it still would be nice to know that the Commander-in-Chief, the guy or gal in charge, is at least willing to squarely acknowledge the problem. And maybe even has a point of view on the subject, and a plan.
So if you feel the same way, you are welcome to forward this blog to your favorite US Presidential candidate’s campaign office. Wouldn’t it be something if I got a response?