A very good friend, a classmate of mine in the fifties when we were both students at the American University of Beirut, called me from Germany last week abruptly announcing that he and his German-born wife will not be coming to Washington in June as promised. His reason was the screening that US-bound travellers face at American consulates and before boarding or disembarking from planes on arrival in the US.
This friend, who has been living in Germany for more than 50 years and is a full-fledged German citizen, said his wife was not allowed into the US consulate in Frankfurt because she had a mobile phone in her possession. She asked an official to hold on to it until she finished her interview but he said this was not allowed, and suggested she store it in a locker several blocks away.
Her husband, a retired Bayer entomologist (his daughters call him ‘Papa Cockroach'), had a valid visa for Saudi Arabia in his German passport. This was also the case the last time he visited the US, when he was subjected to an intense interrogation as to why he was going to Saudi Arabia and who he was meeting there.
My friend, a Christian who was born in occupied Jerusalem during the British mandate, was loth to go through that again. Moreover, his wife had been treated "impudently and rudely" and asked why she had visited the Canary Islands a couple of months before. Given all this, they decided to cancel their travel plans. They told me they are now planning to vacation in Canada, where the authorities treat them much better.
Several friends and acquaintances have related similar shocking incidents no doubt as a result of what Americans experienced on 9/11 (I lost a second cousin that day) and last Christmas, when a Nigerian student was caught with explosives in his underwear — and hence have stopped visiting, much to my chagrin. Many of these friends had wanted to send their children here for their higher education, despite the presence of branches of several American universities in the Gulf region. Much as I sympathised with all of them, I repeatedly told them that I never want to be on a plane with a terrorist who has explosives in his underpants.
In a bid to appease international and local protesters of all walks of life, the Obama administration took a small step recently by abandoning the use of nationality alone as one criterion in determining which US-bound air travellers face additional screening. Most of the travellers who had faced closer scrutiny came from Muslim-majority countries — Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Liberia, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. Travellers from Cuba, Syria, Iran and Yemen were also subjected to body searches and additional bag checks because the US considers these states sponsors of terrorism, much as this charge may be disputed. Even American citizens who were born in these countries faced harsh screening on returning to the US from overseas trips.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), the largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organisation, applauded the decision to drop the nationality criterion. Whether or not the number of passengers subjected to secondary screening will be reduced remains to be seen.
Cair's national executive director, Nihad Awad, stressed that the Obama administration should focus on behavioural and not racial, religious or ethnic profiling. The latter could, The Washington Post reported, "potentially affect 675 million people, including American Muslims and religious pilgrims." Airlines were also said to be unhappy with the profiling, suggesting that it ought to be eased before the busy summer season.
Moreover, the paper said the new approach, informed by "intelligence-based" data, could "broaden the universe of potential targets for secondary searches, expanding the focus from the 14 named countries to dubious passengers from anywhere in the world, a move also designed to outsmart terrorist plotters who knew which countries were affected." At present, it is reported that about 24,000 people around the world are on "no-fly" and "selectee" lists.
What is sorely missing in these measures and analyses within and without the administration is the fact that US foreign policy, long unbalanced, contributed to this state of malaise. Now that Obama has scored a couple of successes in the domestic arena, it will serve him and his countrymen to pay more attention to some of the Middle East's trouble spots, the root of all anti-Americanism.
George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at email@example.com.