Flying internationally as a convicted terrorist, Part II
International travel on The List, the return trip.
Iceland customs was very laid back, and 10 days later I made the return trip.
Aware of my “turbulent” relationship with agencies that govern our airspace, the friend I met up with in Iceland thought it would be really funny to play a joke on me. The night we arrived, she handed me a present. This was it:
A pretty well-rounded ninja spy kit, with a secret message wrist shooter, rear view glasses, surveillance scope, voice changer, and fake passport-making kit. It was pretty cool. And my friend had carted it over international boundries, just for the hilarity that would ensure when I brought it back through customs. I’m glad my friends have a sense of humor.
It was no secret, however, that the TSA and Customs have zero sense of humor, and would treat this Toys R Us-bought children’s toy as evidence of an international plot. So if my re-entry into the US was going to be a Guantanamo-style assault anyway, why not just go big and bring a kit to send secret messages to my co-conspirators and make fake IDs.
Everything I knew about coming through customs
Through hearing stories from friends, I pretty much knew what the average Enemy of the State could expect at Customs. If you’re wondering why I know multiple people who have trouble at the border, it doesn’t take much. Here’s a small primer on US Customs…
There is no agency more hair-trigger with the freak out fits than US Customs. And it takes literally next-to-nothing to get on US Custom’s “you’re guilty of something and we will detain you for six hours until you admit it” list. I know people who have never been arrested, been to a handful of low-level protests, and get absolutely destroyed at Customs. Verbally pummeled for hours, their cars ripped apart, their computer files copied, and just about everything you would expect in a Constitution-free-zone.
Which is exactly what the border is. The Constitution does not apply, and Customs takes full advantage. So here’s what I knew for absolute certainty would happen:
- Everything on my laptop would be copied.
- Everything on my cell phone would be copied.
- Everything of “interest” in paper form would be photocopied.
- I would be asked a massive number of questions.
- I would be detained, possibly for many hours.
But that’s what happens to people I know who have a minor activist history. I am, after all, a real convicted terrorist. So I would be offended if I wasn’t treated even worse.
It started before it even started
I spent the last 24 hours in Icleland alone. My friend went back one day before me. We didn’t arrive together. We didn’t leave together. We don’t live anywhere near each other. Separate itineraries, everything. But a few hours before I was to leave for the airport, I get an email. Customs got her. Details were sparse, but she said they’d detained her for over an hour, asked her a thousand questions, took her computer in the back room, and asked her about me. A lot about me.
What’s most interesting: Somehow, they knew we were traveling together. This could not be gleaned from airline records. In fact, it could only have been learned of from electronic surveillance.
Astute readers will notice I refrain from getting conspiratorial here. It’s “just the facts” on The Jetsetting Terorrist.
And that’s all I’m doing here: It is just a fact that there is no way Customs could have known we were traveling together without being privy to private communications had only over email and cell phones. I’m of course totally aware at how unsecure these mediums are, and how lawless the agencies who have the technology to monitor them really are. One thing I don’t expect is for them to so shamelessly reveal it.
Then it was my turn
I had one thing going for me: If my own country refused me re-entry, at least I could retreat into the bathroom with my fake passport-making kit and give it a second shot.
I got off the plane, and there they were. And I don’t mean at Customs. I mean right there, bottlenecking the jet bridge. Two of them. Checking everyone’s passport. Ok, I thought, let’s just get this over with…
They got to me.
“Mister _____. Come with us please.”
They walked me to baggage claim, bracketing me like I was going to make a run for it. Oh the irony of escaping Customs into your own country… Think about it.
With all my luggage, they took me to a partitioned-off area to the side of where the non-terrorists go. It was furnished with long metal tables for maximum luggage destruction.
And then the questions started
“Where are you coming from?”
“It’s on my ticket.”
“Where were you staying in Iceland?”
“I’m not answering questions.”
He was not deterred.
Many more questions followed. What did I do for work? Did i have roommates? How did I know the woman I was traveling with?
It was sort of like he had to be able report to his boss that he at least attempted to ask me everything on his list. Though he was surprisingly non-hostile to my non-compliance.
The unspoken elephant in the room was that I was a US citizen. It didn’t matter what I did, the encounter would end with me going on my way into my own goddamn country. I could curse their mothers and insult their ancestors and I was still going home.
While two people went through my luggage like surgeons, the questions continued. But they got weirder. Was I the author of ______ (an anonymously-published activist publication that I was actually familiar with)? Where was I going to be on August 12th (9 days in the future)? And was I still planning to meet back up with my friend and stay with her tonight? (Information of this plan, I learned later, had been obtained from a text document on my friends computer, proof-positive of the file-copying.)
Drum-roll the anti-climax
The luggage-pillagers got to the ID kit. I watched them stare at it blankly together, turn it over, and then… put it aside and move on. It was the most anti-climatic response to what was clearly a terrorist spy-kit in US history. It was almost like they got the joke.
They amassed a pile of items of interest to them (the spy kit was not among them), and disappeared into the back. And 45 minutes later, they re-emerged, handed me my things, and said I could go.
- Unlike cops, Customs does not seem to respond with hostility to not answering questions.
- They really do copy your computer / cell phone files.
- They can’t refuse you entry to your own country, so it really doesn’t matter what you do.
And the most hard-to-swallow lesson:
- They’re not impressed with your spy kit.
Not even a little bit.