AMERIKKKA Back in the Belly of the Beast
It’s an old saying: when you live in the belly of the beast, all you can see is a bit of the stomach lining. When you live outside the beast, you see the whole beast. I’ve been expatriate since 1995; I confess it took me about five years to see America as though it were a foreign country, but now, when I hear an American accent on the radio, it sounds foreign. If it happens to belong to a member of the current national administration, it usually sounds arrogant, too, much as those Hollywood propaganda flick Nazis sounded as they crowed about their conquests and plans for a new Europe. One final word about me: I live on the remote temperate South Pacific island of Tasmania, one of the states of the Commonwealth of Australia, a large island 100 miles due south of Melbourne. I like living here. The climate suits growing vegetables year round and my particular microclimate is so gentle that I have a thriving lemon tree. Tassie is about as far from the troubles of the world as one can get; and would be further than that but for our glorious leader, John Howard, a loyal minion of GWB who has gotten us into all sorts of needless security concerns on account of it.
At the end of July this year my father died. No sympathies needed; he was nearly 90-years-old, had been quite sick for over a year, and his passing was a relief to all concerned, him included. But my 87-year-old mother deserved a visit, as did a daughter in Oregon. So I mastered my considerable fear and loathing and booked tickets on Qantas for the shortest possible visit—nine days.
Deplaning at LAX our mob rushed for customs, with a white-shirted guard every fifty feet along the corridor. Approaching the area there was a red line painted down the hall parallel to the wall. This line wasn’t in the middle of the hall, but close to one side. All non-US passport holders were directed, rudely, loudly, and authoritatively to line up inside the line. Those of us who had the dubious honor of having to report to the IRS about our worldwide incomes and of being born in the States, were ushered past. As I walked by the Immigration booths I saw literally hundreds, maybe one thousand non-citizens in this endless queue, where I had heard they were fingerprinted and photographed and checked against computer databases of "terrorists" and other forms of undesirables. On the other hand, my document inspection consisted of a 30-second wait, a quick machine scan of my passport, and a pleasantly delivered "welcome to the United States." Customs inspection for me was just as perfunctory.
I felt ashamed. I felt somehow responsible for the harsh and unpleasant treatment being accorded to those non-citizens in the other line. If I were a non-citizen I would think three times before deciding to come to the States and be put through that discourtesy.
I caught a taxi to my mother’s apartment. The driver was from Iran, a Muslim, with pretty good English. When he found out I lived in Australia and found the current war in Iraq reprehensible, he opened up to me. One thing he said: he had not been able to speak frankly with any of his passengers for years. At the end I got his email address and have put him on a list run by a Tasmanian cyberactivist who circulates what probably constitute true news reportage, such as the views and opinions found on Lew Rockwell’s website. I felt honored by his trust.
The first thing I noticed was the LA Times sitting on the breakfast table. Not having seen an American newspaper for years, I gave it a quick scan, my attention drawn to two articles about Iraq. In one I saw a large photo of happy school children whose school had been built by American money and who were getting an education in freedom now that Saddam had been deposed. This did not square with what I had been reading in Australia. The next article was a mob of happy Iraqi military waving their weapons in jubilation because they had been given control of their district by the Americans, who had armed and trained them. This also did not jibe with what I had learned elsewhere. I had the feeling I was reading a Berlin newspaper of a vintage 1940. And I clipped these articles to bring home to astonish my friends, to show them what a distorted version of anti-American viewpoints we were getting on the internet.
After a few days catching up with my family I returned to LAX to fly to Portland, Oregon, for a few days visiting. I had never seen such security concern. There was a minor booking glitch; I boarded with a one-way ticket. Because of that I was automatically classified as high risk. Not just shoes off and pockets emptied and laptop removed from case for separate inspection. I was taken to a nearby table and my entire body carefully scanned with a hand scanner, my pants half dropped (after all, I could have had a belly band concealing a ceramic knife or other sort of plastic fantastic weapon). Again I was surprised to see so many people wearing those snazzy white Homeland Security shirts and drawing government salaries. The thought came to mind: when people are employed by the government you can count on them to support that government. But what a waste of resources, all those people, creating "security." What they were really doing was creating more a feeling of insecurity.
On the plane, in the seat next to mine, was a pleasant, attractive woman about my age (60) who seemed rather sad. We chatted. She said she well knew Tasmania; had been there and acknowledged how lucky I was to live there. I asked about her and she mentioned among other things that her nephew had returned from military service in Iraq and was mysteriously sick, seriously so. I asked her if she knew anything about depleted uranium weapons. No, she said, what is that? So I explained what her media had never bothered to mention. As the full implications of DU hit her, tears began running down her face, tears of grief and shame. I knew well the feelings. We discussed what might be done to end this criminal behavior—and I took her email address to put on that cyberactivist’s list. I was starting to feel like a subversive "virus" running through the American Body Politic.
Returning to Los Angeles, I had learned enough to make sure when checking in that my boarding pass showed that originally I had purchased a round trip ticket and consequently, had a less rigorous inspection going through "security." Obviously, were I someone of evil intent trying to carry something prohibited on to an aircraft I would have invested in a round trip ticket and not a one-way. And I had visions of a half a dozen foolproof ways to destroy an aircraft (and myself) had I had a mind to accomplish that. "Security?" Hah! Just turn a writer with a good imagination loose on that delusion.
And a few more days in LA and it was time to go home. I was hugely relieved that the Bush administration, helped by Katrina, had not needed to create a huge terrorist incident to distract the populace from the talk of his impeachment or of charges being filed against high-level insiders for the outing of Valerie Plame because had such a thing happened, at best I might have found my flight delayed, my stay in the USA prolonged. And at worse, I might have been rolled up and found myself behind barbed wire in the desert somewhere with hundreds of thousands of other dissidents, who got there because their names were on some list or other.
So back in another taxi to LAX, this time driven by an Iraqi Muslim whose sentiments, after he found out I was an "Australian," turned out to be much like the driver who brought me from LAX a few days earlier. His email too, was offered, and he was put on the list. The virus strikes again.
And finally, the point of this little essay, I am back at LAX, international departure terminal. I have never seen such a mob. Thousands of people. Long, unmoving lines everywhere, resigned suffering people putting up with indignities to get somewhere. I find the Qantas area. I find someone working for Qantas who can direct me to the correct queue. I queue up and wait about 45 minutes to reach check in. I get my boarding pass and am directed to the next queue where my bags will be inspected and checked in. I want to protest but know that if I make any smart-alecky remarks I’ll likely be yanked from the queue and threatened with arrest and charges for insubordination. So instead, I comment loudly to my queuemates about how safe I am feeling, so incredibly safe with all those white-shirted security folks around. This gets a few chuckles.
This second queue moves even slower than the first. After about an hour my bags are swabbed with specially treated cloth which is put into a machine that certifies that explosive chemicals are not present. Then a little Homeland Security sticker is affixed to the bags and they are accepted for loading on my plane. And then I can go to the boarding areas, but first…there is another queue, this one of the sort I have become accustomed to. I whip out my laptop, strip off my shoes, remove belt and every bit of change from pockets, and zip, I’m through. Rushing to my boarding area I note that I have spent nearly three hours going through this drill and my plane is about to board. But frazzled, I have time for a beer.
And this thought occurs to me: if, and I say here in capital letters, IF, there were any real terrorists out there who are not CIA plants, and if they wanted to bring the USA to a virtual halt, there would be no need whatsoever to get explosives or weapons on to an aircraft. Not at all. Suppose a suicide bomber, or a mind-controlled slave, came into the international check-in area of LAX with two large suitcases packed solid with explosives surrounded by small metal bits, giant Claymore mines, and when in the midst of all those thousands of people queueing up, detonated them.
I mean, how could air transport occur if a person couldn’t even take their bags into a terminal? What a waste all this illusion of security is making! If a half-assed writer from Tasmania can think up such atrocities over a beer, what could someone dedicated to creating chaos come up with?
Since these things aren’t happening, maybe despite DU and all the other atrocities committed by the criminals in Washington, D.C., maybe there aren’t any real terrorists out there.
With a mind spinning with thoughts like this, I got on the Qantas jet and I confess, that the moment the cabin crew closed the hatch, a palpable sense of relief went through me, as though somehow the crew had created a bit of magic, made the plane into Australian national territory while still on the ground at LAX. I was on my way home.
And I made a vow: I would not return to the USA until there had been a genuine regime change, and by that I did not mean the Democratic party.