Land of the Free — Say What?

Around last Easter I had a two-week vacation in those United States, ending Easter Sunday. Apart from a trip of a few days to upstate New York and New England, I spent my time in New York City.

This was to be my first trip to those United States since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Last time I had flown out from Newark with the thought that I would never see the twin towers again beyond my wildest imagination. I must concede I do not have much to which I can compare post-9/11 America, as I previously had had only 3 short visits — with no more than two nights at a time — to the United States, just passing through or visiting from Canada. The last time I saw the twin towers I was on my way back from a millennium celebration in New Zealand. It was January of 2001. My knowledge of America is mostly acquired from afar, beginning with an American overseas school.

My worries about last Easter’s visit started months earlier. Last time a visa waiver had been satisfactory. This time I either had to get a machine-readable passport or a visa. I chose to get a visa. People shook their heads when I told them, as they believed one should choose the easy alternative of getting a machine-readable passport. I, however, did not want to let U.S. Government regulations dictate the renewal of my passport.

Of course, choosing between getting a machine-readable passport and getting a machine-readable tourist visa is a choice between two evils. Getting a machine-readable passport now would be better than getting a machine-readable passport in a few months, since biometrics soon will be included in Norwegian passports. However, getting a machine-readable passport now will only postpone the acquisition of a biometrics passport. On the other hand, getting a visa requires answering lots of personal questions, including stating every single organization one belongs to or has belonged to and the countries one has been to in the past 10 years. How this is to serve as an effective block against unwanted elements and not as an invasion of privacy of innocent people is beyond me.

How sad it is that Norwegian authorities recently have introduced machine-readable passports — probably due to U.S. Government passport requirements [link thanks to Paul Boytinck]! An even earlier version of the Norwegian passport than the one I have — I believe it was the version I got in 1988 — could be manipulated, with help of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Nairobi, to the effect that a Norwegian journalist safely could leave Kenya when being wanted by Kenyan authorities for the "crime" of investigating abuses of the Moi regime.

When I arrived at Newark, there was a passport line "as long as a terrible year," as a Norwegian expression goes. There was no separate line for us who had taken time to go through the process of acquiring visas. Our time was too to be spent in line at immigration control. Avoiding having ones fingerprint taken through not getting a visa was obviously pointless, as both fingerprints and photos were taken at immigration at the airport.

Having gotten into "the land of the free," first priority was to get to the apartment in Manhattan. I do not have a TV in my apartment in Oslo, but one of the TVs in this Manhattan apartment was occasionally on. One of the issues that caught my interest was the congressional hearings on steroids. It wasn’t that it came as a surprise. I was perfectly aware of the interventionist character of the U.S. Congress. However, it was a contrast to Norwegian conditions, in spite of the Norwegian Government being very interventionist indeed. Firstly, the tradition for broadcasting parliamentary investigations is quite weak compared to the American tradition of broadcasting congressional investigations. Secondly, and more importantly, there is in Norway — as far as I know — no serious challenge to the concept that regulating performance enhancing drugs is the domain of the sports themselves.

I paid a visit to the American Museum of Natural History. The environmental exhibition was an example that also museums are not always to be trusted when it comes to facts they present. Are the environmental changes really "caused solely by human activity?"

On Monday before Easter, March 21, I had decided to visit Ellis Island. This was when I met the Battery Park Police. Or should I say Battery Park Gestapo? Until then my Leatherman had given me no serious problems. When I had wanted to enter places where it was not allowed to carry a knife, the personnel had been so kind as to keep the knife for me. This included the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where I had gone to see the monetary history exhibition.

In Norway, where there are regulations for carrying knives, and where even banning selling certain knives was called for in August of last year after a killing on board a streetcar, carrying a Leatherman has never been a problem for me. Neither has carrying a Leatherman been a problem elsewhere in Europe.

However, in the "land of the free" it turned out to be a problem. I started standing in line after having bought my ticket for the ferry to Liberty Island and Ellis Island at about 10:40 am. At about 11:20 am I entered the tent for a security check. Of course, I had seen the signs saying that knives were not allowed in, but as there was no explicit message saying that there was no option of having the knife kept there, and as this is quite normal elsewhere, I thought that having the Leatherman kept there would be unproblematic. Not so. Perhaps I should have sued them because of the missing explicit statement in the spirit of American litigation? The police told me in a rude manner that they could keep the knife, but that it in that case would be destroyed.

At the door I was told that one of the street merchants could keep the knife for a few dollars. Trust one of those guys with my knife? I don’t think so. I went back to the apartment to leave the knife behind. That cost me about an hour. It’s interesting that in a country were bearing arms is supposed to be a constitutional right the police require you to go unarmed between a ferry terminal and wherever you can have the arms for safe keeping.

Being back at the tent for another security check I went through security check more thorough than I have ever experienced previously or later, airport security checks included. Even the security check before flying out of Newark the following Sunday was more relaxed. Watches and belts were ordered removed beforehand. Any pocket content the police could see had to go through the x-ray machine. An officer ordered me to remove a wallet from one of my pockets. I was very reluctant to remove the pocket content, because it was not a wallet. I think I now know more what the Smithsonian was like.

At one o’clock I was heading out to Ellis Island. I wonder whether those saluting Lady Liberty reflected on the Battery Park security check and liberty. I arrived at Ellis Island, which I had learnt on a sightseeing cruise a few days ago was named after the owner Samuel Ellis, who was a Tory during the American War for Independence. It was no surprise that I found no reference to the Loyalist position in the Ellis Island Museum. One of the things I did find was information on how both major political parties competed for immigrant votes and how immigrants from enemy regions under World War I were especially required to be loyal to the U.S. Government in that they were pressured into buying war bonds. Democracy was obviously all right when competing for immigrant votes, but not accepting this competition was not in order.

That evening I visited a bar where I overheard a conversation. From what I could tell the conversation was about the security concept at the ferry terminal in Battery Park. One of the gentlemen said something like "this is America" and that he didn’t like the way it was going. They talked about a guy who brought a bottle of vodka, and that he wasn’t allowed to bring it because someone had broken a bottle and used it as a weapon. The bottle had cost 2 dollars, and he had been offered 3 dollars for safe keeping. One guy, one of the gentlemen said, had stripped so as to leave some sort of shorts or underwear, whereafter asking the officer whether that was satisfactory.

On the trip to upstate New York and New England I went to Newport. Thanks to Jeffrey Tucker I knew about the Newport Mansions. I did not get to see any of the mansions from the inside, but I did see the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York. I learnt that the estate after Frederick Vanderbilt was at about USD 80 million. 40 million of those went off in taxes. Land of the free?

Back in Manhattan, next to Ground Zero, I noticed a portrait of Thomas Jefferson with a quote:

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

Easter Sunday before catching the flight back to the Old World I past by Claremont Hill, where I had a look at the Ulysses S. Grant tomb and memorial. The general who finalized the crushing of the early American order is laid to rest on a hill named Claremont. I guess it makes sense that an organization by the name of "Claremont Institute" stands up for Lincoln. Perhaps a better name would be "Claremont Hill Institute?"

The flight back to the Old World was a reminder that not everything was OK over here either. I was sitting by the aisle, and a cart was standing next to me. All of a sudden a Norwegian guy made his way passed the cart by sticking his back end up very close to me. According to the rudeness "etiquette" of these days he said nothing.