Nine Tales of a Society Scared into Stupidity
Published on Sunday, December 14, 2003 by the Toronto Star
Nine Tales of a Society Scared into Stupidity
by Haroon Siddiqui

At a party the other night, five people were talking about their experiences, or those of relatives and friends, while crossing the American border.

As law-abiding citizens, they do not begrudge the need for post-9/11 vigilance. They even understand the occasional arbitrariness that might creep into the immigration screening process.

What they are saddened about is the bad manners, arrogance and the seeming racism of the immigration officials involved, as well as the obvious idiocy of some of the policies of the Bush administration.

Herewith, the stories told by the five people, plus four from elsewhere.

After a routine set of questions at the border, the first man was asked: "Carrying any baklava?"

"No," he replied, amused as well as irritated at such a crude attempt at ferreting out a possible Arab link.

"You know baklava, don't you?"

Of course, he does. But he feigned ignorance: "Some Greek dessert, isn't it?"

He was waved on.

A young man who grew up in Toronto and works in the United States was asked his nationality at an airport.

"Canadian," he said, proffering his passport.

"You're no Canadian," came the reply, after the officer glanced at the place of birth. "You are an Indian, that's who you are."

A young Canadian traveling on office business to the U.S. was questioned for 45 minutes. Among other things, he was asked how many relatives he had in Pakistan.

Hundreds, he said.

The officer changed the topic.

The fourth person related the story of his cousin who had come from India, with valid visas for both Canada and the U.S.

She was questioned at the U.S. border as to why she was carrying so many bags.

She said she was bearing gifts for her daughter and other relatives.

But the officer suspected she intended to stay on in the United States.

She said she had no reason to, given a husband of decades back home, along with an extended family and even more extended properties. She said the visa was issued only after checking all that out.

He seemed unimpressed.

She was close to tears at the prospect of being denied entry after having flown halfway around the world.

He relented, but only after inking a line across her multiple entry visa. Asked what that meant, he said it meant that she had to "get out" before the exit date. "Just get out."

The fifth person recounted the story of yet another Asian visitor to North America who was denied entry to the U.S. from Canada.

When the man protested that he had a valid visa, the officer ripped the visa and said: "Now you don't" and turned him away.

It is quite possible that some of the stories may have got distorted or exaggerated in the telling. But the drift is the same.

The people relating the stories say they themselves no longer visit the U.S. unless essential.

"I used to go all the time," said one, "but not any more."

All are Muslims, but I hear similar stories from Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians, even Greeks and Italians.

They must all look alike, eh?

"They think I am a turbaned mullah," said a bemused Sikh.

Here are four more stories from the Canada-U.S. border, conveyed to me in recent weeks.

A white Canadian with an Asian Canadian wife was asked: "Does she speak English?"

She happens to hold an M.A. in international relations from an Ivy League university and is a diplomat holding a higher post than her husband.

A 67-year-old Iranian Canadian was asked: "When did you last phone Iran?"

Last night, he said.

"Last night? Why?"

Because, he said, he phones friends and relatives most nights.

The officer didn't seem to know what to say, and waved him on.

In separate incidents at the American pre-clearance at Pearson airport, two people were delayed so long they missed their flights. In one case, the officer was polite and said he has little discretion in deviating from the prescribed procedure.

Not all the problems are on the American side. A store owner in Little India on Gerrard St. reports that business is down because his American clients, mostly Hindus, have stopped coming.

"Many get hassled at both the Canadian border coming in and at the American border going back home," he said.

"They complain of rude, almost racist behavior. They don't need that."

In both Canada and the United States, we are now also familiar with the kind of questions being asked of those suspected of "terrorist links."

For example, some of the 23 students arrested in the Toronto area as possible Al Qaeda agents, and since released for lack of any proof whatsoever of terrorism-related activity, were asked if they prayed or read the Qur'an.

Is that a crime these days?

And given that hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world do both — say their daily prayers and read the Qur'an regularly — how do the authorities separate them from the terrorists? Or are all of them considered suspects these days?

So long as so many remain so, the chances of ferreting out real terrorists will remain slim.

All these are signs of a society scared into stupidity.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus.

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