Fortress America

I'm glad I got to see the world before it closed up shop.

In the past decade, I've been lucky enough -- blessed enough -- to travel to four continents. The countries I've toured are a literal A to Z, as I road-tripped from coast-to-coast in America and hiked through the mountains of Zimbabwe. And now, both within and without our nation, prospects for mind-expanding travel are narrowing to the aperture of a pin, or perhaps to the invisible width of a bit of data.

Today, the United States began photographing and fingerprinting non-U.S. citizens as they entered the country. The program, US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) is budgeted at $380 million. An estimated 24 million individuals each year will have to pass two finger scans and have their photographs taken as they enter the United States. The government's hope is that it will catch terrorists and those who overstay their visas.

In the words of Homeland Security director Tom Ridge, "As the world community combats terrorism ... you're going to see more and more countries going to a form of biometric identification to confirm identities." Biometrics is a developing, and lucrative, arena of technologies that map and quantify the body digitally.

Ironically, the International Biometric Industry Association had scheduled its annual conference for September 11, 2001, in Orlando, Florida. The association re-scheduled the conference, with a keynote called "Homeland Security and Biometrics," for February 2002. Since then, the financial prospects for biometrics firms have soared. In much the same way that the war on Iraq has improved the fortunes of military outsourcing firms like Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root, our nation's response to the September 11 attacks is feeding the coffers of biometrics firms -- for an uncertain reward.

This holiday season, the United States blocked or delayed several international flights into the country because of security concerns. Ultimately, no arrests were made, and the government admits there may have been no terrorist plot to begin with. In fact, some of the flights had spelling errors on their passenger manifests that caused the delays. More specifically, a test of the US-VISIT program in Atlanta screened over 20,000 passengers and found just 21 people with suspicious records. None of them were suspected terrorists -- rather, they had been convicted of prior offenses including statutory rape.

On the one hand, no one wants criminals entering the United States. But at a cost of $380 million dollars a year, this program is wildly expensive and does not seem to net its target of terrorists (who may well have sophisticated ways of foiling the system). Instead, it may deter legitimate tourists and hurt an already ailing airline industry.

And moves like this one do not just affect non-estadounidenses. The tightening of global travel restrictions sends a message to Americans that the world is as closed to us as the United States appears to be to those on the outside. They add to the already rampant paranoia that the world is merely a dangerous (and not also a wondrous) place and the only safe haven is a gated community within a shuttered nation. Our country is becoming a fortress of our own devising, both psychologically and tangibly. For example, last week Brazil began fingerprinting and photographing American visitors as a tit-for-tat.

"At first, most of the Americans were angered at having to go through all this," said Wagner Castilho, a press officer for the Brazilian federal police. "But they were usually more understanding once they learned that Brazilians are subjected to the same treatment in the U.S."

We can't expect special treatment on the global stage. If we restrict access to the United States, others will restrict our access to the world. And that would be a devastating shame. In an era of terror, anger and recriminations, one of the healing balms is a one-on-one connection with people of other nations. We cannot heal the rifts in this fractious world by hiding in our domain. No screening program will make us absolutely secure. And if we retreat -- attempting to become an island fortress -- we will endanger not only our humanity, but our long-term security as well.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

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