Land of the Not-So-Free
It is Tuesday afternoon in terminal 1 of John Wayne Airport in Southern California. The gift shop is deserted. So are the eateries. A few travelers lounge around the departure gate in quiet boredom, browsing newspapers or chatting on cell phones. Like me, my fellow passengers have arrived two and half hours before the scheduled departure, knowing full well that the duration of our impending flight is less than half the length of our wait.
We have passed through the mandatory security procedures, removing shoes, wallets, keys, watches and bracelets. A few empty plastic trays slide down the moving belt and fall on the floor with a loud thud. Everyone jumps, including the jittery security personnel, who outnumber the travelers. In my two weeks through 10 airports in three continents, I notice that the North American flights are less than 30 percent occupied.
Apparently the presence of heightened security is not inducing more people to fly. Are the ones who venture to travel by air the only brave ones left?
My entry to the United States a couple of weeks ago coincided with the upgrade of the national security alert level to orange and the launch of the U.S.-Visit program at 115 airports. As I stood in line with other U.S. citizens and permanent residents, I watched visitors with visas being photographed and finger printed. Those coming from countries participating in the visa waiver program had to fill out green I-94W forms. They bartered their rights to appeal an immigration officer's refusal of admission, or to contest deportation, in exchange for the privilege of entering the country without a visa.
There are plans afoot to color-code passengers based on their perceived risks. When such procedures are implemented, will the few who continue to travel in this environment feel truly free?
As expected, I miss my connecting domestic flight. I reach San Francisco around midnight, but my bags do not. They are delivered almost 20 hours later; the shrink-wrapped one has a busted lock. As instructed on the phone, I take my suitcase to the airport for evaluation. One of two women kicking around pieces of unclaimed luggage in the baggage claim area takes one look and says, "That's TSA, right?"
"You're right. It's TSA," says the other.
"It's TSA, Madam. We can't do anything about it."
They continue to insist my bag is "TSA."
"What's TSA?" I finally exclaim in frustration.
My ignorance about the all-powerful Transportation Security Agency and my visibly foreign appearance are enough for the women to launch into a speech about post-9/11 security precautions, including leaving suitcases unlocked for travel within the United States.
"At least the person on the phone should have warned me and saved me a trip to the airport," I say.
"Sorry, but the phone is answered in Mumbai," comes the wry response.
As it happens, I am originally from Mumbai. But I am also a longtime U.S. resident. I have traveled a fair bit within the country, pre- and post-Sept. 11. The insecurity I sense now is not just over individual safety. There is also worry about the ephemeral nature of jobs, the sputtering economy and an all-encompassing fear that one's entire lifestyle is in danger.
The line at the luggage repair shop is long. A dozen people stand politely but impatiently for their turn. Mine is not the only busted lock. The harassed clerk tries to accommodate all requests.
"Will take a month," he says to the incredulous customers.
The furor over outsourcing underscores the general sense of anxiety, and chips away at the basic core of confidence that America always projected to the world. Innovation, risk-taking, obtaining capital to fund commercialization of cutting edge ideas -- these were the attributes that lured immigrants to America's shores and buoyed the lifestyle of its citizens. Now, foreign tech workers are unable to obtain H1-B visas, and those who have them are subject to intense scrutiny. No wonder companies striving to maintain competitiveness move the work overseas in pursuit of cost advantage. As pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, CEOs today are fretting about auditing processes and class-action lawsuits instead of focusing on putting up capital to exploit new opportunities.
Cutbacks in government spending on technology and a fractured foreign policy are not helping either. The entire country seems to be afflicted with a pervasive sense of mistrust.
I am not qualified to speak at any length about globalization and economics. But I can speak of my first experience in the American educational system. In my first semester in graduate school, I was introduced to the concept of open-book and take-home exams. Before that, all exams I had taken were the closed-book kind, administered under close supervision. The implicit trust between the teacher and learner, the unwritten, age-old code of conduct extended to the newly arrived, uninitiated student, was a revelation to me.
I was trusted to respect the honor system, regardless of my foreign-ness. By rising to meet this expectation, I felt accepted, respected and honored to have the chance to participate in the American experience.
For America's continued prosperity, it is this trust that must be restored. Trust among the people for the government, among employees for employers, between a man and his neighbor. Like respect, loyalty can't be bought, allegiance can't be demanded. Ultimately, it is trust, not suspicion, that will build good will among the people of the world for the people of America. And with this trust, America can once again stand proud as the land of the free -- and the home of the brave.
Ranjani Nellore has written for India Currents magazine.