Two years ago, I left the US for Europe and Africa. Upon my return, I found a nation that had traded away vaunted ideals for a false sense of security.
Cultural readjustment is always a shock. For the past two years, I have lived away from the United States and have watched, from a distance, a parade of national security stories wind their way through the headlines – the sentencing of Wikileaks source Bradley Manning for violation of the Espionage Act, the Boston Marathon Bombings, and the ongoing revelations from Edward Snowden.
These were stories that shocked and angered me, but as a wandering ex-pat, I couldn’t fully appreciate their magnitude until I returned to the United States to discover that the country I once knew had become obsessed with security to the detriment of common sense and rational thought.
for me to suffer this pervasive
sense of insecurity in the place
I once called home. The more
I travel, the less I think I will
be able to.
In the past nine months, I have travelled through Turkey, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Three of those months were spent on a bicycle, a 3600km trip from Cape Town through the length and breadth of South Africa. I had no problems flying with my bike from Gaborone to London. Security was a breeze, and there were no troubles getting a bike through customs.
I cannot say the same for my flight from London to Chicago.
Firstly, there was the issue of liquids. Less than 100ml of water left in an old Nalgene netted me a half hour delay as the London officials cleared out my backpack and rummaged through my carry-on. The man next to me was in the dock for some individual shampoo bottles. Neither of us thought that this level of harassment made us any safer.
It only grew worse when I had to clear security again in Detroit. We have to remove our shoes? We’re still doing that? I hadn’t done that for any of my recent flights. I hadn’t stepped through a full body scanner in years, so I had forgotten just how humiliating these can be.
The knowledge that someone is looking at you naked back in some secluded airport office is second only to the extreme vulnerability of ‘assuming the position’ – hands up, feet spread apart.
My bike, which had survived the trip from Africa to London in good condition must have been manhandled by a bear. The TSA didn’t mention that on the form they left, however.
But these are only the hazards of travel post-9/11, post-Richard Reid, post underwear bomber, right? These are the supposedly the compromises we make to maintain our safety.
discover that the country I once
knew had become obsessed with
security to the detriment of common
sense and rational thought
I grew up in a town of 2000 in rural Indiana. It is where my parents still live; it is where I returned after my travels. There’s a fence around the elementary school – keep the children in; keep any sexual predators who may be roaming around the cornfields of north-central Indiana out.
It is worse in neighbouring Lafayette, however. There, twenty local school districts were awarded more than $712,000 in matching grants from the state to better securitise schools. That means twenty districts have kicked in $712,000, which the state has matched, bringing the grand total to $1.4 million to upgrade security cameras, conduct threat assessments, purchase equipment to restrict access to schools, and hire police officers to patrol school grounds.
I’ve spent nearly four years in Africa. That amount of money poured into education astounds me, especially as there is nothing educational about this spending. This isn’t money that benefits the students in any way. It isn’t buying chemistry sets. It isn’t paying for counselling or supporting free lunches for children whose learning may be affected because they are troubled or below the poverty line. Yet taxpayer money for education is used to keep kids under lockdown.
Indiana governor Mike Pence said, “These grants will allow our public schools and school corporations to add resources that will help secure our schools so they can focus on educating our students.” That’s an interesting idea because in Nigeria, children in the north regularly go to schools under threat of attack from terrorist group Boko Haram.
will protect us rather than ask:
how can we change the community
so that the walls are unnecessary?
The idea that we have to secure our schools to enable learning is reactive rather than proactive. It is the same logic that enables the Lafayette Police Department to acquire a $500,000 military surplus armored vehicle free from the nearby air base. Free except for the upkeep and maintenance on a machine that will theoretically be called into action if ever there is an active shooter in the area.
Americans, in my view after so long away, seem to function on the theoretical. We have seen what happens on television just in the past year – the Newtown massacre, the Navy Yard shootings, the gunman at LAX – and we think, what if that happened here?
And so we attempt to block the shooter rather than prevent the shooting. We build walls thinking that they will protect us rather than ask: how can we change the community so that the walls are unnecessary?
I spent a significant amount of time in South Africa, on this recent trip. It’s a beautiful country, with friendly people, but one thing struck me more than anything else: a pervasive sense of insecurity. In Cape Town, every business and home has fencing, razor wire, and alarm systems that trigger armed response teams.
Despite the country’s beauty, I could never live there, and I worry that the US is moving in a similar direction.
Active shooters, the threat of terrorism, schools that have been turned into virtual prisons, and airports that are a gauntlet of humiliating invasions of privacy and personal comfort.
It’s getting harder and harder for me to suffer this pervasive sense of insecurity in the place I once called home. The more I travel, the less I think I will be able to.
Photos: Copyright 2013 Carl Byron Batson (not to be reproduced without the photographer’s express prior consent)
Sterling Carter writes on the intersection of political economy, arts and culture, and human rights. He has over five years’ experience on African development, violence and conflict with organizations including Human Rights Watch, Global Witness, and Search for Common Ground. He is originally from Flora, Indiana but pulled up stakes long ago.