Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Man the wire. English tourist on the loose!

What follows is the content of an email I received this evening from a friend describing his most wonderful encounter with Federal Agents protecting the US capital. It is published with consent but anonymously.

"Mohammed Al-Touristkh" as we shall call him, is a great friend and a very loyal servant of the Crown. He is taking some time out between arduous postings to visit the States (and undertake some serious 'courting' of a delightful babe called Amanda!).

Here is the story. This is what we are fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan!

Howdie folks,

Just thought I would fill you in with the latest from N America. I haven't been in touch much but I spent about 3 weeks in Canada - 11 days of that skiing.

Anyways, I am currently in Washington DC visiting a friend from Baghdad and doing some sightseeing.

Sooo, I've done the Capitol, seen the White House (hey's it is sooo much smaller in real life compared to TV), the memorials on the Mall etc. etc. Very impressive. Really inspiring.

So, what's left? hmmm.

Well, I think I'll go to Arlington Cemetery (well worth a visit by the way). So, on the way to the Cemetery on the Metro is the Pentagon.

First mistake: I had a thought off the top of my head. Spontaneity will kill me one of these days.

I kinda know there won't be much to see but nothing prepared me for the reception I got. I come up from the Metro and clearly the Metro is right (I mean right) by the entrance to the Pentagon. OK, so I've worked in a few security sensitive environments.

I like to think I am becoming worldly but am I naive?

I ask the kindly security guard where I can walk around, admitting I am a tourist.

BIG mistake.

I have no Kalashinkov on me, I am not wearing a beard. No rucsac. So, they say you can't see anything, no photos. Fair enough.

I was just standing there having got off the tube. Imagine being at the gates at the end of Downing St - kinda like that. You're not going anywhere, not asking to go anywhere. Rather, you're asking where you should not go.

They ask for ID. So I show them my driving licence - which the guard disappears with for a while. Next step:

"Sir, please walk forward. Remove your hands from your pocket." I had ipod wires sprouting from my pockets.

"Sir, please empty your pockets. Show me what those wires are attached to. What's in that pocket." Crikey, what have I done?

"Sir, I would like to ask you some questions." Out comes the form.

I also want to ask a few questions, sir.

Then we go through all my intimates name, address, height, age, weight. Well, not as fat as half your country, sir.

What's the address of your hotel. Oh, well that's not too hard, I've got a card in my pocket that has the address. But I have to put down my book on my counter and I know what'll happen. I smirk inwardly. You've gotta enjoy this bit. Just out of sheer playfulness.

So I inwardly sigh with delight as I place my book down face upwards, on his desk. "Taliban" rages the front cover. Come on, sir, it's a good read.

I don't need to look into the guard's eyes to see flashing lights, sirens, alarm bells go off. The whole lot. I half expect to look down and see a red dot somewhere on my chest.

I am playing it utterly straight at this point despite my mind working overtime. I am NOT provoking. I understand what is going on. It's just a slightly unexpected version of what can happen anywhere at anytime in Iraq.

Question, "Where do you work, sir." For the U.S. Government, sir! 53rd Division, Blair Brigade, sir.

I answer, "For the Foreign Office (pause). Kinda like your State Department."


"I've spent the last six months in Baghdad." I was sort of disappointed. He was not very impressed.

I have been detained at this checkpoint for 20 mins by now. They still have my licence.

Now you'll love what happens next.

Ah, the suits appear, aka "The Feds." A pair of them. The short one is wearing a pink shirt and all cold smiles. The tall one is in a brown leather jacket; he'll be playing the bad cop.

"Sir, what are you doing here? When did you come into the country? When are you leaving?"

Am I in Hollywood? I'm not sure I've got enough make-up on for this sort of role.

I have my hands in my pockets.

"Sir, please remove your hands from your pockets." My Dad always said never to put your hands in your pockets. Now, I know why.

This is just too much. I try for a bit of childish, brazen antics. I put my hands in the air. They didn't like this.

I give a bit back after another few questions. Not aggressive, I just try it on. Fortunately, they are badly trained. They get provoked and show it. Pathetic. This is not security, this is a bureaucratic waste of time. The CIA is clearly so large they have people who have far too much spare time to enter stupid, pointless data into.

Anyway, they are basically conciliatory but it takes a while to get to that point.

The problem was I had unknowingly stepped onto federal property. Unfortunately that happened pretty much immediately after I got off the Metro - I'm serious. And I didn't have my passport on me which would have showed that I had not been smuggled in with some coke from Afghanistan, if you know what I mean.

Things are a little lighter now. They give me some advice. Carry your passport, sir. Fair enough, that makes sense. I had already recommended to them that they have a sign saying that security restrictions are in place. They have more advice.

"Even been seen reading that book on the Metro. Someone might make a phone call and report..."


"What about freedom of speech?"

"... people are scared of dying." Some people clearly are.

I'm scared of dying intellectually. Are you scared? Is your country, sir? Is it scared of asking, quizzing, being curious, being inquisitive, asking what you shouldn't ask, being different, finding out more, not accepting what you are told, going beyond the conventional.

I walk off, my mind a whirlwind. Freedom, stupid bureaucracy, the image of US overseas, 9/11, liberty, security, state of fear, debate, or lack of it, authoritarianism, militarism.

My first interaction with the federal government of the United States of America has just taken approximately 55 minutes out of my life.

Now I know them.

And they know me.


Colin Campbell said...

I lived in Washington DC in the 1980s. This type of stuff went on even then. Not so extreme. I cannot imagine what it is like now. Great story. Be Afraid Be Very Afraid about what this says about the mentality of the employees of the US Government. Having lived and worked in the US for many years, I have no wish to go back.

Tommy G said...

Time for some Ashes observations.

We could do with some Scottish input.