Papers, Please


I am a 58-year-old American male and former military officer who has had the opportunity to travel throughout the world. No, I never participated in any war and am happy I haven't. I was a PAO or Public Affairs Officer, gallantly writing my way through enemy lines. I lived for a while in Panama and Japan, but experienced brief visits to many other countries. Some of these visits were on official business and others were for pleasure. After leaving the military, I began to take longer journeys on my own,; a month in Europe, three months in Central America, a month in Australia. As I child, I always dreamed of traveling the world and seeing new and exciting things; having the chance to befriend and learn from people of other cultures. I've been lucky enough to do that.

I consider myself a vigilant traveler, when on the road I keep my eyes open and really study what I see around me. When I walk, my head moves slowly to either side, my eyes like a camera lens, filming the people and places I see. My brain files away the images, recording and cataloging everything for possible later use. I pay particular attention to certain things. Things like how friendly or rude I'm treated at immigration and how overtly tough the visible police presence pretends to be. These things are a good indication of the collective personality of a country. A friendly face and a pleasant greeting at immigration always goes a long way with me. A stern, sour disposition does nothing but make an already anxious procedure even more unpleasant. And these days, unpleasant and uneasy is what I feel when re-entering my own country.

I live on the beach in northern Baja, Mexico, about two hours south of Ensenada. I have been here for three years and enjoy the peace and quiet I have found. Not only that, I also feel more free down here. A lot less rules and regulations, and a lot less stress. I know what you are going to say, "Mexico! drugs kidnappings and murders!," and you would be right. However, there is none of that where I reside. It is a tranquil, ocean setting where life is easy and the locals friendly. I know it may not work for everyone, but it works for me. Good quality food is available at prices far less than in the US. Truth be told, I no longer can afford to live on the beach in my native California. So, I live down here, but am close enough to the border to make frequent trips back to my homeland, which is something I have come to dread.

On a trip to Europe a few years back, I crossed from Germany into the Czech Republic in a rented car, heading for the capital city of Prague. I will never forget how friendly the guard was at the border. He was all smiles and happy to see me as I handed him my American passport. I remember looking at his eyes as he told me he was glad to see Americans coming to his formerly Communist country. I could tell he was sincere. He actually was honored to allow me the privilege to enter his homeland. As he handed my passport back, he told me to enjoy myself and wished me well. I drove off with a good feeling, glad I had made the decision to visit this fascinating country. A feeling I wish I felt coming into America, but I don't.

I don't need to be told that 9/11 changed everything, I've heard it a million times. I realize the world is a dangerous place and there are plenty of misguided zealots out there perfectly willing to blow themselves up in the name of some uncompromising religion or some far-out political cause. Holy war martyrs? Cultural heroes? Hardly. I would call them mentally ill dupes in desperate need of some self-analysis. But dangerous nuts have been around forever. And because of a few dangerous nuts, America has transformed itself into a rude, authoritarian police state, always eager to let you know, "We are in charge, and donu2018t you forget it." This attitude will only lead us down the road to perdition. And this attitude seems to be pervasive everywhere in America. It is not my imagination, I see it wherever I go. Men and women with something to prove to somebody. A surliness that borders on contempt. The weak misfits are now in charge, and they are quick to let you know it. Simple-minded tools of a system with a questionable agenda. From the lowly mall cop, and the muscle-bound street cop with the shaved head and tattoos, to the nasty Border Patrol agents in San Diego, scrutinizing me like I'm Osama Gonzalez with nothing but nefarious intentions, obviously guilty of something for wanting to enter into my own country. As an American citizen, I resent this. It is insulting and belittling, something I'm beginning to believe may have been planned all along. Many people tell me of similar treatment, so it is not just me. Foreign friends who have so eagerly visited me in the past, are now reluctant to do so because of the treatment they now are subjected to when entering the land of the free. I know all people in uniform aren't like this, but if I said 95% of them are, I don't think I would be far off. Since 9/11, those in uniform apparently now see themselves as heroes, different than the rest of we, "civilians." A rigid, military mentally has swept over this country like some ugly new fad. Between the intimidating, black Nazi-looking uniforms, the drug sniffing dogs at my feet and luggage, and the poker-faced thugs with machine guns, I'd swear I was in wartime Germany being asked for my papers by some mindless automaton.

Maybe 9/11 didn't change things at all? Maybe this is what America has been all along, and I just never saw it? It has always projected a, "tough on crime" image, but it seems to be getting out of hand. Every day I read about incidents across the US where some cheap, wanna-be hero figure in uniform has overstepped the boundaries of his authority; tasering some 86-year-old grandmother, firing 38 rounds into some unarmed guy reaching for his wallet, or killing a drunk holding a garden hose water nozzle as he sits on the balcony of a friends apartment. Something has gone wrong. Treating people – American citizens – like we are the new enemy, and they – those in uniform – are the occupying army, here to keep us in line. Pay close attention to whenever some Podunk, one-horse town police force unveils a new addition to its anti-terrorist arsenal. That new tank or that military surplus, laser guided, 50 caliber machine gun, and all their other new high-tech toys, will most likely be used against you, the new perceived enemy, rather than some dark-skinned, turbaned terrorist.

America has elevated common policing to a well-managed, military operation. When the line between small town police and military becomes blurry, you had better beware. Nazi Germany was very thorough in creating such an environment. Everybody was in uniform. Fear and intimidation were the preferred tools of those in power. America may not be a true police state yet, but it certainly has become an over-policed country. Oh yeah, this is still a free place all right, as long as you do what your told. The thing I find most frightening about this new "persona" my country has adopted, is how quickly and easily it has been embraced by all those in positions of authority. I don't care for it one bit, and am sad about what my homeland has become. I don't pretend to be some enlightened creature able to see the future in some crystal ball, but we are headed down a dangerous path.

I am old enough to have seen the transformation first hand. I was in the military and served my country proudly and respected our leaders and those in uniform, like I was brainwashed to do. But what happened to the human touch? The friendly cop on the beat who knew everyone in town.? In high school, I recall having my beer poured out by some understanding, regular-guy cop who knew that young high school males liked to drink beer on Friday nights after a football game. It didn't make me a criminal, nor did he treat me like one. He told me get home and stay out of trouble. Today I would probably be arrested and taken to jail. This country loves to arrest its own citizens. It loves to pepper spray them, shoot them with plastic bullets and tase them for the most minor infraction. "Quit resisting," has become the new mantra for every cheap nobody with a badge and uniform bent on beating the shit out of someone. It happens everyday in every small town across America. And that prevailing attitude begins from the very moment you enter the country.

All the rude, surly men and tough looking women who wish they were men dressed in black at the border, are only the tip of a giant lance that is aimed right at the heart of this country; a country I'm not sure I recognize any longer. I know there are bad guys trying to slip through the border, but the rest of us, with valid American passports, shouldn't be treated with such contempt. A smile or friendly greeting would be much appreciated, instead of, "Where are you coming from, and what were you doing there?" The more I encounter this rudeness and intimidation, the more I want to never return.

John Wayne is not dead my friend, his tough guy persona lives on in every lowlife nobody in uniform dying to be a hero in the war on terrorism. The problem is the war on terrorism has transmuted into a war on us; the American people. Why are we now subjected to warrantless checkpoints and groping by low-class, TSA agents when traveling? What did I do? It is merely conditioning us for further subjugation. Remember this: it's only the beginning. It's a war that pretends to be ever vigilant for those bent on destroying the US, but instead it has been used to strip us of our liberties and dignity. And it is happening very quickly. New restrictions seem to be enacted every day, all for our own good. When the government tells you "It's for our own safety," believe just the opposite. It is a slippery slope we are on; a slope fraught with danger. Be suspicious and very wary of all that they say. Just beware, once the 800-pound gorilla is out of the cage, itu2018s tough putting him back in.

November 29, 2011

John Brennan [send him mail] is a freelance writer living in Mexico and will respond to any comments.