Since the United States began bombing Iraq, I have worn a sign wherever I go (cycling or walking around town, teaching, shopping, going on the subway, etc.). It is about 8.5″x11″. One side says `Oiligarchy’ in large red letters; the other has a 2″x4″ sticker of George Bush labelled `International Terrorist’ near a smaller sticker saying `Regime change starts at home.’ I live much of the year in Cambridge, England, where I teach physics, and also in Manhattan.
Planning my most recent trip to New York (arriving June 6th), I thought of an experiment to test the current limits of American free speech: What happens when I wear the ‘George Bush: International terrorist’ side through immigration at Newark `Liberty’ International Airport? I grew up in New Jersey and hold a US passport. Without one, no experiment would be needed (I’d be sent back on the next plane).
I figured the airline has no legal obligation to let me onto the plane, so I didn’t wear the sign until I got off the plane in Newark. Otherwise I might not get to do my experiment. I hadn’t thought about a more serious problem: that the passengers might get worried by the ‘regime change starts at home’ sticker, whereupon I would be disrupting a flight, and maybe declared a terrorist threat or an enemy combattant. Now even US citizens can have that title.
As I hoped, arriving at immigration and customs was fascinating.
At immigration, the agent asked why I was wearing a sign around my neck, I said it was my protest against the war, free speech. He started typing information into (I presume) my passport record, and refused to tell me what he was typing. He then put my passport and customs form into a plastic folder and told me to take it to a room where I would be admitted. There I waited for about 10 minutes. The agent called my name, asked me where I was coming from, then admitted me. I asked the agent why I had to come to the room, he said “Your guess is as good as mine.” I asked if it was the sign and he said “You do draw attention to yourself. But freedom of speech, that’s one of the great things about this country.” I agreed and then went to get my luggage.
The immigration agent must have written a magic code onto my customs form, because at customs they sent me to be inspected. They tore apart my luggage, leafed through my books (Eric Schlosser’s new book, _Reefer Madness_, was a particular draw and we discussed it a bit), asked me why I was coming to the United States, and at least five times asked where I lived, what I did in England, where I went to college. The agent was friendly (good cop I guess). He was happy to discover a few pads with physics equations scrawled on them. The agent’s partner came up, saw my sign, and goaded his parter: “Do this guy good!” Which the first agent partly did, but the second agent continued after the first said I was “okay.”
The second agent insisted that I take off my sign. I asked if I had to, and he said that if I didn’t I was being a knucklehead about it, and implicitly threatened to make my entry more miserable, so I took it off for the rest of the inspection.
The second agent asked if I knew anyone of Arab descent. I said, yes, one person. It continued:
Agent: Where is he from?
Me: [I tell them]
A: Is he religious?
M: No, he’s an atheist.
A: You know, does he go to *mosque*? [asked very intensely]
M: No, he’s an atheist. A: How do you meet him?
M: [I tell them.]
A: What does he do?
M: [I tell them.]
A: Does he have a *long beard*? [They really asked me this!]
A: Anyone else you know from an Arab country?
A: Where were you born?
A: Are you from India?
M: I was born in England.
A: Are your parents from India?
A: Do you have a business card?
M: No, but here’s my university staff ID.
A: Do you have a wallet?
The agent roots through my wallet, what a damn invasion of privacy, then finally I can go.
Free speech is alive but not breathing very well.