Last week, I flew back into the United States from Vienna, via Rome. As opposed to the swift moving lines we had encountered in European airports, "passport control," as it's now called at Newark Airport, took over 25 minutes to get through…. and we were on a separate line strictly for US citizens and permanent residents. In typical fashion, Janet was asked a variety of questions about the length and nature of her trip, while I was asked nothing. "They think you're selling plutonium to the North Koreans," I whispered to her after we were far away from Homeland Security man. "Yes, I'm quite devious looking," Janet responded.
This weekend, I entered Canada with my parentals, and while the passport control line to get in was long, it didn't take more than fifteen minutes. The Canadian customs dude was quite polite and friendly, cracked a couple of jokes and sent us on our way.
I tell this story to contrast my experience yesterday with U.S. Customs and Border Control at Toronto Airport. It took me, no joke, 40 minutes from the time I got my boarding pass till I got through to my gate. Why? Because I was selected for "random search." Because I live at a separate address from my parents, I had to fill out a separate customs card, and I had to go through the line separately. I stopped after getting stamped to wait for the folks, since they were right behind (and are mildly inept about getting from point A to point B without the help of their daughters).
This was when I was first yelled at to keep moving. "But I'm waiting for my parents," I squeaked. "Ma'am, you must keep moving!" the man with the gun yelled again. So I trudged around the corner and attempted to wait there. As I paused, another fat man with a gun yelled at me to keep moving and jabbed his finger to my right. "But, my parents. I'm waiting for them." "Keep moving! To the right!" he yelled. So I moved on and tried once more, futilely to wait. As my parents came around the corner, I waved, Mom tried to follow me and the fat man told her to stay to the left. "Random search, ma'am!" he yelled at me, "You must keep moving! Now!" I wanted to (but didn't) yell "Please stop yelling at me, dammit!" My bag got tossed through an ex-ray, and was then selected for physical inspection! Whoopee! (Not everyone's bag, I noted, was being tossed). And a new grumpy man then wiped the interior of the bag down for explosive residue (or maybe drugs…. I don't know because they don't tell you anything). He then thoroughly rooted through my bag – toiletries, dirty unmentionables, the whole shebangabang.
I finally was permitted to leave after 15 minutes of this. Of course, when I went through normal gate check and metal detector for my carry-on, I was pulled aside again, this time so that the U.S. Customs lady could root through and pull out my keys, which she carefully inspected (they charmingly take your boarding pass from you and hide it in a plastic container, because clearly, you're guilty of something) and my Tylenol PM.
I tell this story because, a) I was completely enraged by the end of it, and that always makes for a funny and entertaining tale and b) I was shocked and awed by the complete rudeness of the entire U.S. Customs and Border Control staff (they fall under the purview of Dept. of Homeland Security). Let's ignore the fact that I have never so much as been pulled over for a speeding ticket, nor smuggled any contraband into (or out of) the country (not even a freaking Cuban cigar!). Let's ignore the fact that this was a total waste of taxpayer dollars and that no one should feel any safer while lame-o's like me are getting pulled over for searches. No, what got me was the treatment – it was as though these people were sure I had done something wrong. If the fat man had just said, "You've been selected for a random search. Please step this way," I would have been less than thrilled, but I wouldn't be writing this now. Years ago on the border, Marc, Brian, Bob and I got tagged at random to pull over the car and go into Canadian border control, where we were questioned at length, handed over our credentials, and had a computer check run. It was funny to us because we're all quite squeaky clean, and it did add an extra 30 minutes to our trip, but the gentleman at the border was so polite that I didn't get mad. He explained that they pull over every 8th car to run the check and everything was punctuated with a please and a thank you.
As Pops and I sat outside the bathroom afterwards, I seethed with anger. "They treat you like you committed a crime," I snapped. "Could be worse," Dad said, "They could have made you submit to a strip search." "I would have sat here all goddamn day before I let them do that," I yelled. "No way!" I appreciate the importance of protecting the country from terrorists and other nutjobs. But if you want to randomly stop people, people who haven't done anything wrong, you might want to have a little more respect for the fact that you're rifling through their personal effects, and attempt to treat them with some manner of dignity, Department of Homeland Security.
This article underscores my feelings.