Visiting a Very Strange Country

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I tell you, coming back yearly to the United States is stranger than dwarf-tossing, maybe up there with licking toads. It’s like watching something dead that you once cared for decompose in time-lapse photography. The country is in lockdown.

I live in Guadalajara a couple of blocks from the US consulate, a fortress. Big concrete stop’em-bombs circle it, disguised as planters. Iron bars spaced a couple of inches apart rise all around. I’d take a picture to show you but I would end up in Guantanamo. The Mexicans say the bars are to keep the gringos in. Really they are to keep the rest of the world out.

Fear. The world is a perilous place. Don’t drink the water. People talk funny languages and don’t act right. There’s no telling what they might do. Anything can explode. Given American foreign policy, anything might.

Recently I flew to Washington. As we descended into Reagan National, the captain announced over and over, sternly, that we must stay in our seats, strapped in like laboratory animals, for the last thirty minutes of the flight. (I wondered whether they might do experiments on us, but they didn’t.) If anyone stood up, the captain didn’t tell us, he would divert to Dulles and the stander-up would be thrown to the ground and probably taken to Guantanamo, to be tortured by in-bred West Virginia girls with eleven fingers.

Fear. It was everywhere. On the subway in Washington the standard over-articulated female speech-major voice said again and again that we must be vigilant and report any strange behavior, to catch terrorists.

Right, strange behavior. On an urban subway at one a.m. Got it.

“And…thank you…for making….your Metro…Say. Fer.” Where do they get those voices? She sounded as though she wanted to lick the microphone. Presumably a psych-majorette somewhere had decided that it would be good marketing to make us think that Metro was ours. I wondered whether I could take it home with me.

A friend swears the public likes this terror stuff because it gives the appearance of meaning to lives that don’t have any. It makes a kind of sense. Getting searched every ten minutes means that you might be dangerous, a satisfying thought to people who have never been dangerous. Terror is fun, when there isn’t any. Militarized robocops ninjaed-out in swat trinkets give a brief zest to a boring thirty years in the cubicle before a discreet burial.

Fear seemed to be everywhere, or at least to be promoted everywhere, but I wasn’t sure who was afraid. Nobody I met was afraid. Nobody talked about terrorism or paid the least attention to Mommy Metro. Maybe just the government is afraid. Or maybe it wants us to be afraid. Maybe it’s afraid of us.

In another galaxy, long ago and far away, I was a Huck Finn simulacrum of eleven years, armed with a fielder’s mitt and BB gun in a little place called Athens, Alabama. The courthouse was on the town square. To enter, you walked through the door. With your BB gun. Nobody watched the door. I know, it sounds implausibly simple: just walked in. In those days people regarded a door as a hole in a wall intended to allow ingress.

Today to enter the courthouse in Arlington County, Virginia, in metropolitan Washington, you go through a metal detector. Everything you own has to go through an X-ray gizmo that someone is getting rich selling. You have to have a note from your mother saying why you are there.

OK, maybe not the note. I may have made that part up. But the metal detectors are there. They are everywhere. The government of Arlington County is afraid of the public. The entire federal government is afraid of the public. You can’t leave a library without passing through the electronic gate to see whether you are stealing books. The whole library system of the United States thinks you are probably a criminal. Schools have metal detectors. They are afraid of their students.

On the way to Washington I went through immigration at Houston. Used to be, you showed your passport, got it stamped, and trucked on. Sometimes the agent smiled and said, “Welcome back.” Now it’s like entering an Eastern Bloc country in Soviet times. Travelers are the enemy, tolerated perforce but not wanted. You can tell that the immigro-cops would really rather not let you in. It has nothing to do with terrorism. An Anglo of fifty-eight is not a terrorist and they know it.

A burly federal cop of maybe thirty slid my passport through a scanner and examined the results on a screen carefully placed so that I couldn’t see it. You are not allowed to know what the government knows about you, or thinks it knows.

This blue-suited renta-a-bozo started with the rapid-fire questions. I figured he had watched too much television. “Where are you coming from?” Mexico. “Why were you in Mexico?” I like Mexico. “What were you doing in Mexico?” I live there. “Why are you going to Washington?” “Why, to blow it up, Charlie, with tiny little nuclear bombs concealed in my shoes. Gee, you caught me.”

I didn’t say this or I’d be hanging by my thumbs in Guantanamo. I pictured the Gulag fleeing Russia and oozing across the bottom of the Pacific, pseudopodia groping, to its new home in the Land of the Free. Lunch.

The new America. No checks, no balance. There’s no restraint on the power of these people, and they know it. If you suggest that it is none of their business why an American citizen is going to his country’s capital, at the very least you miss your flight. You could easily end up in jail, and nobody would know where you were. So you knuckle under. In, say, 1985 the difference between a cowed citizen of Russia and an American was that the American had some degree of recourse. That was then.

But does it matter? Maybe there is less of a market for this Bill-of-Rights stuff than we thought. Maybe nobody cares, except self-interested journalists scuttling in the shadows like cockroaches carrying some vile disease. Give the people Budweiser, give them Oprah, and they’ll finesse the details.

There’s money enough in the country now that government is more about power than lucre. Pretty much everybody can have 300 channels and a shot at home theater. Beer, T-and-A, a warm place to sleep, all the golf you can watch. Nobody is going to take it away. It keeps the lid on. Just keep your mouth shut and don’t lose the remote….

In Houston the speech-major voice gurgled from above, “Certain…measures have been taken for your security….” Don’t make jokes. Report each other. Vigilance.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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