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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Checkpoints USA

This video was recently posted on the excellent site States Without Nations.  It was hard for me to watch until the end because it shows an America that I no longer know or understand.  When I left the country in 1989 such a thing would have been inconceivable.  How things have changed in a post 9-11 era.

It concerns internal checkpoints where people circulating within U.S. territory are stopped, asked their immigration or citizenship status and, in some cases, detained.  To be clear this is not about border security because these checkpoints are inside the United States.  It is also not about people doing things which might lead the American authorities to believe that they have a reasonable suspicion that someone might be up to no good.  It is simply stopping people who are otherwise going about their business and refusing to let them leave until they have answered a series of questions to the satisfaction of the agents of Homeland Security.

Where are these checkpoints located?  According to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) the Department of Homeland Security has created this "Constitution Free" 100 mile zone and placed checkpoints along all these zones, including my hometown of Seattle, Washington:

Is this legal?  Is it constitutional?  I am less interested in the answers to those questions than I am in trying to figure out what changed in the American mentality in the last 10 years to make this sort of thing acceptable to the American people.  There have been demonstrations, editorials and, of course, the ACLU which is fighting this in court.  However, from what I can tell the most common reaction to these checkpoints is a kind of passive acceptance - a sense that this a necessary evil in a world where the United States is threatened by evil people.

Do these checkpoints actually make Americans safer?  Does Homeland Security actually have any metrics by which they measure the success or failure of these checkpoints?  How many terrorists have they caught? How many plots have they foiled?  It would be interesting to know these things.  Or is this just "security theater"?  I suspect that it is.  Just look at the map for a moment and those huge borders, the thousands of miles of roads, and the sheer number of people (millions of them) circulating in these areas and it becomes quite clear that, even with an army of men and women stopping people every morning and every evening, this is mission impossible.  Or do Americans really think that a terrorist is going to be tootling down one of these roads and will meekly pull over and submit to questioning when he sees the uniform?  Think about it - there are plenty of ways around these checkpoints if one really is interested in evading the authorities.  It's a big country, folks, and there simply aren't enough people to make this work.  That is my take on it - feel free to disagree.

What it does do is cause a great deal of annoyance for the average person and here we come to the second flaw in the logic behind the checkpoints - to make the checkpoints work smoothly, they rely on the cooperation of the people being pulled over and questioned.  And what if people do not cooperate?  That is what you will see in this video.  A few very brave people simply refusing to play their part in this play and asking their own questions about why this is necessary and by what right this is being done to them.   And what I see as I watch each scene play out is the sheer impotence of the authorities when the script does not go as expected.

Americans have always resisted the implementation of a national identity card and the idea that the authorities can simply stop people willy-nilly and ask for their papers.  In my youth I was taught that the fact that these things didn't exist in the U.S. was a point in my nation's favor.  We are free, I was told, and we are not like those evil totalitarian "papers, please"  societies.  And now some Americans seem to think that perhaps those totalitarian societies were on to something.  Good to know.


Anonymous said...

actually Homeland Security can conduct internal checkpoints within a 100 miles of a point of entry. In addition to the zones on your map draw 100 mile circles around every city in which international flights arrive.
St-Louis, Denver etc. They would cover nearly 100% of the US

Victoria FERAUGE said...

You've got to be kidding me. I don't know what to say - that is just unbelievable. So the Constitution is basically suspended in the U.S.?

What do I get the feeling sometimes it's over and done and the terrorists won.

Blaze said...

I'm not sure the US was ever the free country that was so strongly pounded into our brains.

Everyone loves to talk about the founding fathers. Yet, many of those freedom loving men were slave owners.

In fact, eight of the first 10 Presidents owned slaves.

Even "Give me liberty or give me death" Patrick Henry owned slaves.

US history developed from that dichotomy and hypocrisy. So, I'm not sure we should be surprised at checkpoints, drones, full body scanners, FATCA and more today.

I think I began to come to that realization after I spent a year in Canada attending school when I was 18. I returned to US just a few weeks before four students were killed at Kent State by National Guards during a Vietnam War protest.

Vietnam (including having a cousin and high school friends killed or maimed there) and Kent State State changed my view of US forever.

I walked by World Trade Center construction sites every day on my way to and from work. Huge banners demanded America: Love It Or Leave It.

So, I did just that. I returned to Canada, became a citizen as soon as I was eligible and have never considered returning to US to live.

If only US truly were the land we were told about. It's not.

Christophe said...

I might be wrong, but I think these checkpoints have more to do with fighting illegal immigration than finding terrorists.
Regardless, 9/11 was a blow to America. The terrorists took much more than the lives in the trade center. American lost a lot of freedom as a result. Leaders should have been more careful in the response to that event, in order to preserve the rights and constitution of the US.
We gave up a lot of freedom in the name of security, but are we that much more safer. I am not sure of the return on this "investment".
America is not the same country I emigrated to 13 years ago. And it has not changed for the better.
This is just sad.

Sally said...


Were you never required to show your ID (passport) when checking into a hotel in France? Aren't you legally required to carry your ID around with you in France? Even with the Schengen agreement, they still sometimes check IDs at the old border stations between EU member states.

If you can accept this in France, why is it a problem when it occurs in the US?

Maybe these checks are just "actionism", the government putting on a show of being vigilant. They may not prevent all terrorists or illegal aliens, but they do make either activity marginally more difficult. The politicians think this means they are "doing something against crime".

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Christophe, It appears to be both which is kind of funny when you consider that the problem of the undocumented is being solved all by itself. During the Great Recession most "illegals" left the US or were deported. As for the future the major sending countries to the US are undergoing demographic change. Mexico's birthrate is going down. The problem the US may face one of these days is that other countries won't have people to send any more. With a US birthrate that is under replacement what will the US do then? Start begging people to immigrate? :-)

@Sally, You're absolutely right about France and other countries in Europe. I've never EVER been stopped here though it is a possibility.
What I find really funny about this though is that 20 years ago my fellow Americans looked at my situation and said, "See, this is why America is great. THIS is why WE are a free country. We don't have to have submit to such things because this is the United States." I guess Americans have decided to be more like Europe and that's fine but then explain to me what is today, right now, so darn special about the US? If you don't have any more freedom (or these days any more opportunity) in the US as compared to other places, then why bother to be an American?

Sally said...

I've been stopped twice in Germany, both times decades ago. Once they were actually checking for drunk drivers, but first asked for ID and driver's license. The other time was a police roadblock immediately after one of the RAF terrorist bombings. Ancient history, really.

Not having any ID at all for the month after I renounced my US citizenship and was waiting for the CLN to come through made me nervous though. I carried a bunch of photocopies of documents from the German naturalization process around and postponed a hiking trip in France.

What I think is strange about Americans' "freedom from IDs" ideas is that they are not really free. In the US you have to show some sort of ID, usually a driver's license, very frequently. There is no legal requirement to have one or carry it around, but life is quite inconvenient if you don't. And the idea that foreigners in the US are supposed to have "papers" (passport with visa), while US citizens aren't legally required to have IDs, is just plain weird and dysfunctional.

Americans even have to go through a special registration process in order to vote and there's all kinds of hoopla about hurdles set up there. If they had the continental European system, this would be a non-issue. If you've got your national ID card and are old enough, you can vote.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Sally, I know what you mean. I had my residency card stolen at one point and was very nervous until I was able to get to the prefecture and report it. I was given a paper that I kept in a safe place until I got a replacement.

The really funny thing about the driver's license as ID in the US is that it is a pretty unreliable as a way of proving identity (much less citizenship). My husband, for example, who is not a US citizen, does not possess a Green Card and has not lived in the US in many many years has a US driver's license which he regularly has renewed. Why? Well, why not? :-)

Anonymous said...

Last night at midnight, alone outside of an intercity bus, at the Oslo bus station, 200 km from the border, some border customs guy sticks his face in my face and starts asking me questions. He is civilian-clothed, and holding his customs badge out from around his neck.
Seems like the wrong Place for this to happen, so I tell him (self in Swedish, him in Norwegian) no---that he better go and get the police and ask me those kinds of questions.
This, of course, does not get him out of my face, so he threatends to hold me up outside of the bus, to which I tell him to go get the police.
He sticks his face in closer, to which I reply correctly, "you smell like alchol". To which he responds "ok, that's it, now come and stand over here". "no". Here comes his colleague, with his badge, which I look at a Little, and accept that maybe they are not just a couple of robbers masquerading as police.
Next, they start asking me questions about how much Money I am carrying, ask to see my id and Money, and then frisk me.
All of this happening because of the soccer match that evening between Norway and Iceland, and all of the mass transportation held up at the border making all of the mass transport late.
So, I've spent the evening, confirming that indeed the Norwegian constitution doesn't allow frisking for no reason. I doubt if I will ever find anything regarding whether the customs police can work 200 km inland or what the Norwegian constitution says about such, if anything.
The police state is everywhere, it's only a matter of what violent Culture background has led them up to the Point where they are, so that they can release their animal instincts at that time.
So, next time I meet up with them, I know now what crap I can give back to them as long as I am willing to risk being held up from getting on the bus and from listening to codependent shit from the rest of the bus passengers.
See you in the Parliament next time.