And fingerprinting and photographing foreign visitors is overkill. It’s bad enough that visitors are subjected to a silly little quiz (“Have you ever been a Communist?”) that, embarassingly, demonstrates how little this nation has evolved from its McCarthyist paranoia half a century ago, or that this is one of the few Western nations in which citizens and non-citizens are split up after a twelve-hour transatlantic flight, rather than conjoined in one queue (not always the case going the other way), with instructions articulated only in English. In fact, nothing of these questions, the fingerprints or the photographs is mentioned on the DHS page referencing procedure (again, only in English).
But I don’t see how photographs compared against databases will stop the true professionals, particularly when any real criminal can undergo plastic surgery, grow a beard, shave his eyebrows, or do any number of things to avoid being detected by a guy at customs who ain’t exactly the brightest bulb at the airport.
What’s interesting about the US VISIT program is that it’s actually been in the works since 2000, which suggests that this privacy-invasive program isn’t a direct countermeasure to Sept. 11. The Post article quotes spokesman Mike Milne as follows, “If we have your information in the system, it protects you as a passenger from someone being able to use your documentation.” Oh really? So say Joe Visitor comes into the nation, gets his picture taken by the DHS, and then gets his credit card stolen by some serious thief who uses the card (before Joe Visitor cancels it) to buy “questionable” goods like bullets or raw compnents with which to construct an explosive. Given what we’ve seen of the INS wilfully damning without burden of proof, and such sickening stories as the treatment of Maher Arer by U.S. authorities, can we really count on a non-ICC compliant government to stand by habeas corpus? (And here are a few more side issues: (1) How secure are the databases? (2) What other information is being compared against the photograph? (3) If accused of a charge, does the visitor have access to this data or would their right to fair trial be obviated by a military-style tribunal? (4) Given the current spending spree of the U.S. government — projected to hit a $500 billion deficit in five years — is there any possibility that the government will sell these databases off to a marketing organization to stave off insolvency?)
But the silliest thing about US VISIT is that anyone coming into the United States by land will not be photographed. Given how easy it is to book a flight to Canada, rent a car and head south, this suggests to me that the program is more of a show of force rather than a legitimate countermeasure.
And it’s sure to perform wonders for foreign relations. In response, Brazil has begun performing the same tactics on Americans. The U.S. Embassy had this to say in response: “While we acknowledge Brazil’s sovereign right to determine the requirements for entry into Brazil, we regret the way in which new procedures have suddenly been put in place that single out US citizens for exceptional treatment that has meant lengthy delays in processing, such as the case today with a more than nine hour delay for some US citizens arriving at Rio’s international airport.” But is the Embassy more concerned with the delays or the singling out of American passengers? If the latter, the irony is dripping wet.
[1/23/06 UPDATE: Two years later, security regulations are now accepted as easily as brushing one’s teeth twice a day. While I recognize this post as a particularly heavy-handed one, I am not sure what to make of my feelings now. I feel like an absolute hypocrite. For it seems impossible now to imagine a traveling existence in which one is not required to hand over one’s ID or to be subjected to rent-a-cops who have the false impression that they’re today’s answer to Dirty Harry. This is the kind of Orwellian show of force that angered me as a teenager. And I wonder just how much of a prisoner I am in my own country, and why I (and most Americans) have come to accept this, even when the reasons behind the War on Terror have been rendered bunk. I don’t really feel any more secure than I did before September 11, but I have come to accept this existence as part of the risk of everyday existence and don’t let it get in the way of anything I do, save of course the whole handing the ID over thing.]