Over on Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow has posted an entry entitled, “Human rights worker: JFK’s secondary screening procedures are “human rights abuses” (the post is dated 18/08/08).

In order comment effectively, I am reproducing the post in full:

An American human-rights worker was detained by the DHS at JFK when she returned from her holiday in Syria. She found herself in a Kafka-esque nightmare room crammed like a cattle-car with Americans and foreigners seething as they were abused, ignored, insulted (and sometimes deported) by the US government’s representatives. So much for public diplomacy.

No one who had been detained knew precisely why they were there. A few people were led into private rooms; others were questioned out in the open at desks a few feet from the crowd and then allowed to pass through customs. Some were sent to another section of the holding area with large computer screens and cameras, and then brought back. The uninformed consensus among the detainees was that some people would be fingerprinted, have their irises scanned and be sent back to the countries from which they had disembarked, regardless of citizenship status; others would be fingerprinted and allowed to stay; and the unlucky ones would be detained indefinitely and moved to a more permanent facility.

There was one British tourist in the group. Paul (also not his real name) was traveling with three friends who had passed through customs soon after their plane landed and were waiting for him on the other side of the metal barrier; he suspected he had been detained because of his dark skin. When he asked if he could go to the bathroom, one of the guards said, “I wouldn’t.” “What if someone has to?” I asked. “They will just have to hold it,” the guard responded with a smile. Paul began to cry. I watched as he, over the course of four hours, went from feeling exuberant about his trip to New York to despising the entire country. “I speak the Queen’s English,” he said to me. “I’m third-generation British. I came to America because I’ve always wanted to come here, and now they’ve got me so scared that all I want to do is go home. We’re paying for your stupid war anyway.”

I once got pulled out for secondary screening at the Australian border. They brought my pregnant wife a chair and a glass of water, were friendly and professional and prompt, and never made me feel anything other than welcome. They thoroughly investigated me without ever making me feel like a crook. It took all of 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I can report a similar experience dealing with airport security in the United States. While I was never required to wait in a crammed room where I was not permitted to go to the toilet, I did have to suffer through an extraordinary amount of security procedures every time I passed through a US airport.

I spent the first half of 2008 travelling through Europe, Canada and America. There were no troubles in Europe. But America was a different story altogether. I was travelling on an around-the-world ticket, a condition of which was that I could not fly into the same airport twice. This meant that I was essentially travelling on a one-way ticket, as far as US airport security was concerned. And apparently, foreigner + one-way ticket = terrorist.

I passed through, I think, six airports while I was in the US. And without fail, every time I was required to endure secondary screening procedures. These procedures involved:

  • having airport security search through all of my personal belongings (very roughly, I might add, and the one time I tried to catch one of my belongings before it fell off the table after the security officer had cast it aside, I was loudly and harshly berated for touching my own property);
  • being required to answer a series of intrusive questions;
  • being fingerprinting;
  • having my irises scanned;
  • being patted down by security personnel (I was asked if I wanted this done in a private room, but I refused, preferring to have witnesses while I was touched); and
  • standing in a little glass cubicle where air was blasted on me to see if I had any explosive substances on my clothes or person (it felt like a gas chamber).

I was treated like a criminal, and like “Paul” from the UK, it completely turned me off future visits to the US. After the first airport screening procedure, I found that I became extremely nervous each time I had to go to the airport, which probably just made me look even more suspicious.

But probably the most insulting thing, was that each time I was told that the process by which I was selected for secondary screening procedures was “random”. Please – six times in a row? My partner, who was travelling on the same type of ticket but on an American passport (he was born in Hawaii) was not subject to the same treatment. And whenever I ventured to ask the other people waiting in line to be security screened whether they were American, there was never a single American person in line.

My relief upon returning to an Australian airport, where the security personnel are friendly (they even crack jokes), respectful and efficient, was immense. My experience in the Australian and NZ airports has always been pleasant (mirroring Cory’s own experience), and I can only hope that this is because Australian security personnel treat travellors better in general, and not just because I was travelling on an Australian passport.