Traveling the “National Security” Route to November 7th

By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

Observations from abroad, which is where this journalistic traveler has been for the past several weeks:

ITALY’S “CRAZY” INTERNET LAW

Before I was permitted to log on at internet points in San Gimignano and Firenze (Florence), I was required to present either my passport or driver’s license, so it could be duplicated by the management.

A note taped to the cash register informed patrons that last year, as a response to terrorists communicating with each other over the internet, the Italian government passed a law requiring that anyone wanting to get on the Web at such an internet business must provide photo I.D. that will be duplicated and kept on file at the business until or if the police ask to see it.

Reluctantly, I handed over my passport, a copy was made of my photo and personal information, and I sat down to check my email.


In Florence, I asked the proprietor what was going on. “It’s simply crazy,” said the owner, whose near-perfect American-English came from studying in the U.S. for many years. “My back room is stuffed with thousands of these old duplicated pieces of paper, and I’m obliged to hang onto them forever. It places an undue burden on those of us who run internet points. What on earth do they think they’re accomplishing?

“Any reasonably competent terrorist will find his way onto the internet despite this stupid law. Phony passports or driver’s licenses, disguises, use of library terminals, wireless locations, whatever. This law was passed mainly to make the politicians look like they’re actually doing something to protect us, when in fact nothing really has been accomplished except to inconvenience the public and those of us businesses that now have to become permanent paper repositories.

“Plus,” he said, “it’s just making it easier for the government, any government, to turn its citizens into compliant robots. Take off your shoes before you get on an airplane, take off your belt and let the X-ray machine examine it, I’ll bet if they required everybody to strip behind a screen people eventually would get used to doing that, too. Freedom is being sliced away, piece by piece, and we all participate in it, by doing what they tell us. But I’m a businessman, what can I do? I have to comply. It’s crazy.”

We then got involved in a long and fascinating discussion about what was happening in Italy and what was happening in the U.S. around the “war on terrorism” question. Short sum-up: Italy under Berlusconi and the U.S. under Bush were using the “war on terrorism” as cover for their own far-right agendas. There are indeed bad guys out there that need to be caught, we both agreed, but this incompetency and battering-ram approach wasn’t really the only way to go, and certainly not the best way.

THE LITTER ON HEATHROW’S CARPET

To get to Germany in the least expensive way for my address to Democrats Abroad in Munich (see the text of my talk here ( http://www.crisispapers.org/essays6w/democrats-abroad.htm ), I was routed through London’s Heathrow Airport. I didn’t understand why the cheapest tickets went through Heathrow until I was forced to endure the chaos of that airport’s security system.

Several hundred in-transit passengers from various arriving flights were forced to stand in a mass traffic jam in a windowless corridor for 20 minutes, with no movement forward and with no indication of what was blocking our way. Finally, a security official, perhaps sensing something was wrong, peeked her head out from around the corner and spotted this mass of seething humanity. A few minutes later, those snaking-line mazes were set up and we began moving forward, or at least enjoyed the illusion that we were moving forward, zig-zagging our way towards somewhere.

The whole process took more than an hour-and-a-half, making many passengers miss their connecting flights. When the line finally got to the security inspection area, large signs announced what one could not bring on the aircraft, a holdover from the London scare several months ago about the possible use of liquid bombs. Young employees walked back and forth displaying boards affixed with samples of shampoos and toothpaste and water bottles and such. (Some non-English-speaking passengers actually thought the agents were offering to sell those items duty-free. Much fun.)

From that point on, the carpet became littered with toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles and the like. I jettisoned my toothpaste into a bin but kept some medicinal ointments with me, figuring they might allow those 2-ounce tubes through, as they do now in the States. Alas, my backpack was flagged and I had to explain my possession of the forbidden items. The middle-aged inspector, who gave the impression that he knew he was enforcing non-sensical rules, sighed and made me a deal: “Give me the fungus cream,” he said, “and you can take the antibiotic ointment with you.” We smiled at the charade. I handed over my dangerous athlete’s-foot cream, and off I went to make my connecting flight back to San Francisco.

The gentleman in front of me was not so lucky in his dealings and had a run-in with a hard-nosed young inspector, a stick-to-the-book kind of guy. After all the shouting, the passenger had to turn over several hundred dollars worth of medicinal ointments and pills, since they weren’t in containers affixed with their authorized presciptions. He was steaming. Like me, he will never fly through Heathrow again.

AMERICA’S SELF-DESTRUCTIVE REPUTATION

As an American traveling over the past four or five years all around the globe, I’ve experienced a reaction that I find curious and revelatory. It didn’t matter if I was in Southeast Asia, or villages in Crete, or towns in Italy, or in the Sahara in Morocco. The minute locals found out that I was American, they began commisserating with me, before I even said a word, about how unfortunate I am to live in a country ruled by “Boosh.”

They just assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that I agreed with them, probably because most Americans they met over the past several years felt the same way as they did.

In 2006, this anti-Americanism is still largely directed at the U.S. government, not its people, but it has become even more intense, and virtually universal. In all my travels abroad, I’ve met only one person who stood on Bush’s side, a World War II veteran in England who thought “the Islams” needed to be “whipped into shape.” Other than that, it was fullout denunications of American foreign and military policy under the CheneyBushRumsfeld regime. Most of the time, I had trouble even getting a word in until their rants began to run down.

In short, it’s not liberal propaganda or an academic truism to point out that the U.S. has lost all credibility and respect in much of the world because of Bush&Co.’s excesses and arrogant bullying approach. The ordinary folks I talked with in one corner of the world or another — cab drivers, small business owners, tourist gift-sellers, grocers, students, cafe workers, etc. — all felt perfectly free to tell me how they hated America’s government and how they admired the courage of those few leaders who stood up to the U.S. in the world. Not that they liked or necessarily agreed with Osama bin Laden, or Hugo Chavez, or Fidel Castro, or Hassan Nasrallah; they just thought it important that the U.S. face some strong international opposition.

In the various countries I’ve visited, I’ve been impressed by the average person’s grasp of daily events and the complex realities behind that news. Unlike in this country, where a huge proportion of Americans get their news filtered in the mass-media through a governmental prism, citizens abroad have a great many intelligent media outlets that permit them to piece together the reality of what’s going on. Instead of Fox News, they have a multitude of channels and networks and independent political points of view to listen to.

My personal experience talking to people around the world over the past five years underlines the common wisdom that virtually all the good will built up for America after the terror attacks of 9/11 has vanished as a result of the Bush Administration’s disastrous foreign and military adventurism, especially in Iraq and in blind support of Israel in the Middle East. That’s the reality.

If the GOP can be badly defeated at the polls on November 7, the situation will not change overnight. But we, and the world’s peoples, can at least begin to see the beginning of the end of this reckless administration, and, one can hope, a return to sanity and realistic foreign policy that sees war as a last resort, not a political choice of first resort, as was the case with Iraq.

A BANANA-REPUBLIC VOTING SYSTEM

Another aspect of American life that foreigners have trouble comprehending is our slipshod election system. The U.S. has a reputation for sophistication and technological smarts, but our current voting procedures are so deficient, corrupted and easily corruptible, that we resemble a banana-republic dictatorship in the way our rulers are chosen.

France, Canada, Germany, and so many other countries, are so far advanced in how they tabulate the votes — most by hand-counted paper ballots, with tight security involved in doing so — and how quickly they are able to announce the winners. In the U.S., the Republican Administration in effect has outsourced voting equipment and voting tabulation to three Republican-supporting private corporations. They make the voting machines and control the proprietary software that programs the way those work, which means the way votes are registered and, most importantly, counted. Their technicians have access to the machines, sometimes by remote control, and can alter the programming without anybody ever knowing about the manipulation.

Because of this flawed system, the past three U.S. elections (2000, 2002 and 2004) are suspect. Statistical and anecdotal evidence leads to the obvious conclusion that each of those results were fiddled with, or in some states such as Ohio and Florida, the Republican Secretaries of State declared hundreds of thousands of likely Democratic voters ineligible to vote, forcing them to legally fight for the right to have their choices counted.

“I simply find it incredible that your citizens put up with such rubbish,” said a New Zealand businessman as we ate breakfast in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco two years ago. “Why on earth do they permit such a scandal?” Other foreigners have said something similar whenever the subject comes up.

And how does one explain why Americans are so lackadaisical about their right to have their votes counted honestly? Even the nominal opposition party, the Democrats, haven’t taken the issue seriously enough to loudly protest or take the case to court. It is a scandal, one that easily could be repeated, at least in key districts, in next month’s midterm election. And if you think Karl Rove and his minions are not aware of their opportunities in this regard, you’re amazingly naive.

THE SLIDE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR

I’ve been traveling abroad for decades, ever since my college days — always useful for a writer in obtaining some fresh perspective on one’s own country — and so can remember the era of the “mighty American dollar.” If you had dollars in your pocket, didn’t matter how many, you felt wealthy abroad.

Not so much anymore, and not just because everything costs way more now than it did decades ago. There still are places where dollars are preferred (at the nightly crafts market in Luong Prabong, Laos, for example), but in most areas, the sought-after currency is the Euro.

As the dollar sinks in value and prestige, and the Euro rises, one can anticipate even more of a slide in America’s status abroad and some dislocations in the American economy of potentially major proportions.

In short, even though America stands as the lone superpower colossus in the world, it is somewhat musclebound and its influence and respect are fast-waning. Changing Administrations in Washington might help bring back some of that honor and influence, but it’s equally likely that the “old days” are over and that more intelligent U.S. administrations will have to learn how to use America’s economic and political power more creatively and less aggressively.

We can start on that road back toward respect and international good-will by a landslide defeat of Republicans on November 7. Make sure you and your friends and neighbors vote, and that you demand, or sue for, an honest balloting and verifiable tabulating of the votes. This is an election that will determine our personal, national and global future; that’s how important November 7 is. We are making history here.#

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer-editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: crisispapers@comcast.net .

First published by The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 10/24/06.
http://www.crisispapers.org/essays6w/traveling.htm

Copyright 2006 by Bernard Weiner.

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Published in: on 10/25/2006 at 1:08 am  Leave a Comment  

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