Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Who have we become?

Via Andrew Sullivan, a heart-rending story:
In fairness to an unknown visitor to our country, imagine yourself in his place. The scene is on a recent Amtrak trip between New York City and Boston. The conductor collects tickets, requests identification, folds destination stubs into seatbacks, moves on to other cars. An older man across the aisle, traveling alone, shows his passport. It is clear from their conversation he doesn’t know English.

After decades as a frequent traveler, I have thousands of pictures -- scenery, buildings, people, architecture, from around the world. Today the train passes a lovely stretch of Connecticut shore, tidal marshes, nesting ospreys, the Long Island Sound. What little attention I pay as the visitor takes pictures, is that I’m impressed with his equipment. He and I, unknown to each other, are members of a picture-taking culture, fellow citizens of a show-and-tell world. I wonder if his will join the thousands on YouTube. I imagine, after his return home, how many friends he will impress with stories and pictures of this mild, early autumn, Saturday morning journey along the New England shoreline.

The train is a half hour west of New Haven when the conductor, having finished her original rounds, reappears. She moves down the aisle, looks, stops between our seats, faces the person taking pictures. “Sir, in the interest of national security, we do not allow pictures to be taken of or from this train.” He starts, “I…….” but, without English, his response trails off into silence. The conductor, speaking louder, forcefully: “Sir, I will confiscate that camera if you don’t put it away.” Again, little response. “Sir, this is a security matter! We cannot allow pictures.” She turns away abruptly and, as she moves down the aisle, calls over her shoulder, in a very loud voice, “Put. It. Away!” He packs his camera.

Within a minute after our arrival in New Haven, two armed police officers entered the car, approached my neighbor’s seat. “Sir, we're removing you from this train.” “I….;” “I……” “Sir, you have breached security regulations. We must remove you from this train.” “I…,” “I…..” “Sir, we are not going to delay this train because of you. You will get off, or we will remove you physically.” “I…..”

Nearby passengers stir. One says, “It’s obvious he doesn’t speak English. There are people here who speak more than one language. Perhaps we can help.” Different ones ask about the traveler’s language; learn he speaks Japanese. For me, a sudden flash of memory -- a student at International Christian University in Japan, I took countless pictures without arousing suspicion.

The police speak through the interpreter, with the impatience of authority. “The conductor asked this man three times to discontinue. We must remove him from the train.” The traveler hears the translation, is befuddled. Hidden beneath the commotion is a cross-cultural drama. With the appearance of police officers, this quiet visitor is embarrassed to find he is the center of attention. The officers explain, “After we remove him from the train, when we are through our investigation, we will put him on the next train.” The woman translates. The passenger replies, “I’m meeting relatives in Boston. They cannot be reached by phone. They expect me and will be worried when I do not arrive on schedule.” “Our task,” the police repeat, "is to remove you from this train. If necessary, we will do so by force. After we have finished the investigation, we’ll put you on another train.” The woman translates. The traveler gathers his belongings and departs.

I would like to think that I would have tried to intercede on this man's behalf, but I know how hard it can be to step out of the deference to authority and resignation in the face of bureaucratic idiocy.

One moment I am proud of in my life was a much milder version of these situations in which I managed to insert myself into the gears (with help from others). Waiting to take off on a flight from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, the plane was boarded by two airline bureaucrats who went down the aisle, pointed to three people, and told them they had to deplane and would be put on a flight the next morning. No explanation, no asking nicely; just "You, move." One of the people asked to leave was a bit resistant, and i and another passenger started chiming in, asking for an explanation, etc. Turned out we were over-weight, and these three folks had paid the least for their tickets, and so had been bumped. We managed to prevail upon the bureaucrats to, y'know, ask for volunteers, and, guess what, three people were willing to wait overnight.

Bureaucrats are just following rules, they have no inclination and little or no authority to use their judgment or to negotiate. That we have empowered a mass of bureaucrats to enforce a slew of fear-induced rules about "security" will be a decision we regret for a long time yet to come. If I were from another nation, there's no way I'd visit the States right now. No way.

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