Shackled In the Land of the Free


Being a bit of a drama queen and a kugel too, I burst into tears when the young black United States Customs and Immigration man at JFK airport held my hand in a tight grip and rolled my fingers round and round, every one, to allow the computer to take accurate fingerprints. Right then, the drama queen in me imagined myself in Guantanamo Bay, blindfolded and crouching. And orange is just not my colour. My tears discomforted the young man, who told me, “My first name's Muslim and I get stopped all the time too,” he said, looking less than dry-eyed himself. If that was meant to comfort, it didn't for it made me sadder still to realise how he had become used to his oppression in his own country. The USA Patriot Act, under which US Muslims are questioned and detained, is an oppressive law eroding the civil rights that, until recently, had made the country a beacon. It is an Act which now makes human rights in the US a charade. My tears confounded me. We'd regularly been roughed up and fingerprinted at school and later; these guys were pussycats by comparison.

Thinking later about bawling like a baby, I realised that the indignation and anger came because I have become used to my freedom. I am no longer used to having my rights stripped, my bags searched, my freedom of movement curtailed. I kicked up a terrible racket, taking notes, asking for my suitcases, asking to make calls since the “detention centre” (a mangy-looking office with outdated computer equipment and jaded immigration officers) cuts off cellphone access. The super-visor was astounded in an American it's-all-gonna-be-all-right, lady kind of way. He handed me a US customs and border protection “Comment Card” with its pledge to travellers — all part of the illusion of fair procedure in the great democracy. “We pledge,” it said, “to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States.” What a strange greeting. As I stood in the queue, the same young man had asked for my passport, looked at it and shouted across the lines of visitors: “I've got her. All the time we've been looking for a man.” (MORE)

 


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