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Aug 21, 2008 6:27 pm


If Possible, Don't Visit the United States



For more commentary, please visit WendyMcElroy.com

Emily Feder's piece entitled "At JFK Airport, Denying Basic Rights Is Just Another Day at the Office" on Alternet is excellent in a bone-chilling way. Feder writes, I was recently stopped by Homeland Security as I was returning from a trip to Syria. What I saw in the hours that followed shocked and disturbed me. She concludes, In the past five years I have worked for human rights and refugee advocacy organizations in Serbia, Russia and Croatia, including the International Rescue Committee and USAID. I have traveled to many different places, some supposedly repressive, and have never seen people treated with the kind of animosity that Homeland Security showed that night. In Syria, border control officers were stern but polite. At other borders there have been bureaucracies to contend with -- excruciating for both Americans and other foreign nationals. I've met Russian officials with dead, suspicious looks in their eyes and arms tired from stamping so many visas, but in America, the Homeland Security officials I encountered were very much alive -- like vultures waiting to eat.

Feder's observations accord with my own, far more limited travel experiences. Even the customs guards in Communist China were professional and polite (in a bored way) compared to almost every American security or customs official I've encountered. Travel agents up here (in Canada) say that one of the most common requests they hear is"How do I avoid making a connection in the U.S.?" Going through an American aiport is like being processed through a prison or an animal stockyard. And Feder is correct; one of the most unsettling aspects is that American guards are not just doing a job; they seem to be emotionally invested in it and swollen with an arrogant enjoyment of authority.

Which is not to excuse those security agents who are just doing a job. You do not escape responsibility for brutalizing someone just because you are being paid to do so. Taking money to strip them of rights should make your actions more and not less despicable. And, yet, agents hide their bruality behind"just doing my job" or"just following orders."

The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick said that some bucks stop with all of us. How we chose to treat the rights and dignity of another human being is one of those bucks. There is no such thing as disappearing into the job or behind the uniform and, so, becoming the bureaucratic"nobodies that Hannah Arendt portrayed in her book Responsibility and Judgment, in which she uses a wonderful term she had coined : the"banality of evil". The banality when evil becomes an unthinking routine -- the agent who says"just doing my job and watching the clock while I violate your rights." Arendt writes,"The greatest evildoers are those who don't remember because they have never given thought to the matter."

The trouble with the Nazi criminals was precisely that they renounced voluntarily all personal qualities, as if nobody were left to be either punished or forgiven. They protested time and again that they had never done anything out of their own initiative, that they had no intentions whatsoever, good or bad, and that they only obeyed orders. To put it another way: the greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons. Within the conceptual framework of these considerations we could say that wrongdoers who refuse to think by themselves what they are doing and who also refuse in retrospect to think about it, that is, go back and remember what they did (which is teshuvah or repentance), have actually failed to constitute themselves into somebodies. By stubbornly remaining nobodies they prove themselves unfit for intercourse with others who, good, bad, or indifferent, are at the very least persons.

In his work"On Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau made a similar point while pondering the Mexican-American war. Thoreau wondered about the psychology of men who would fight a war and, perhaps, kill strangers out of obedience. He concluded that soldiers, by virtue of their absolute obedience to the state, become somewhat less than human. He wrote, “Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts--a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity…” This is how “the mass of men” employed by the state render service to it, “not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.” In doing so, the men relinquish the free exercise of their moral sense and, so “put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones.”

In putting on their uniforms, agents of the state discard their humanity.

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