Fear and Loathing at U.S. Customs – A Profiling Experience?


The above photo features me nine hours before my international flight to Washington, DC

Many have heard about the “crackdown” on international flight security since the failed Al Qaeda Christmas day attack. And after my experience, there’s much to fear and loathe entering the United States.

Flying back from a fantastic one month trek through Argentina, the Buenos Aires International airport was backlogged with hard core security lines, a result of new provisions for U.S. bound flights. This was an unpleasant, nasty experience, but frankly expected after the well publicized news that U.S. in-bound security had reached new levels of strictness.

What was not expected was the unusually nasty Customs and Border Patrol experience AFTER the flight at Washington Dulles. Apparently, even after you land & you are a U.S. citizen, you will be heavily screened as a potential terrorist.

It was clear that I had been profiled. I currently have a nice tan, a two day beard and am a dark looking Jew. My thick Philadelphia accent is a clear marker for the Middle East, too.

The first Customs agent looked at my seven year old passport and asked me to lift my beanie to check my hairline to match the photo (seriously I am balder. Please forgive me.). Then I was grilled me about why I shaved my goatee seven years ago… Ironically, I had to provide a new picture and finger prints (this has privacy issues in its own right) one month ago at the same facility on return from France. Guess the agent hadn’t looked at the screen or DHS hadn’t updated my profile.

After, a couple minute grilling, I was cleared to get my bags. I did, and then got the fifth degree again upon exit. I was asked why I was abroad for a month, what I was doing in Argentina, etc. The process was clearly heading to full-on bag inspection until the agent asked my profession and then grilled me on what a blogger was. As soon as Twitter and Facebook were mentioned, I was cleared to go with a suddenly amiable attitude.

Dear Customs Agent: Too late.

Mind you, I am a U.S. citizen. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be foreign citizen coming into the United States. Especially, a swarthy fellow with a “questionable” passport.

It seems to me the Obama Administration, and in particular DHS, has already given a victory to Al Qaeda with this kind of post flight treatment. In my mind, a crackdown like this, a reaction to the Christmas Day attack, finds its basis in fear and not logic. As a result, we hurt our travel industry and our global reputation with Draconian measures.

In fact, perhaps reviewing and improving measures should have occurred first rather than simply “cracking down” with more bad and useless procedures. I’m just going to say that the Department of Homeland Security has overemphasized post flight security, which does nothing to stop airplane incidents and hurts the travel industry. Instead of acting out of fear, we should act more mindfully and address the causes of terrorism.

11 Replies to “Fear and Loathing at U.S. Customs – A Profiling Experience?”

  1. There were about 500 deaths from airplane crashes in 2008 and almost 38,000 deaths from traffic accidents in the US. But all of our fear, attention, and money are focused on flying. We humans aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are.

    Oh, by the way… These are the same geniuses that will soon be running our health care system soon.

  2. terrorism is a terrible thing and the fascinating thing about it is that not act of terror is even required for terrorists to succeed.

    they succeed when a state of fear and submission is produced which looks to have occurred with your experience.

    if ppl really neded to travel somewhere then they’ll just have to put up with this stuff. if however ppl have a choice of destinations then it could make a difference.

    take care

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  4. While some of your story is a little unsettling, remember that it’s a lot easier to have an opinion than a responsibility; knowing what messing up an inspection could have severe ramifications can affect the way some officers’ screening techniques have evolved. I did the job for 31 years and encountered a lot of “instant experts” who suddenly knew a lot more about my job than I did.

  5. Piper:

    I suppose that’s true; that technically they were executing a rigorous screening. Thank you for your 31 years of service.

    One must ask though if blindly following policies like this excuses a guard from looking at whether the policy is effective. Does grilling U.S. citizens AFTER a flight lands prevent the terror incident on said flight? No. It only annoys the citizen.

    Note that I did not like the pre-boarding procedure, but excused it as a necessary evil. We need to examine which of these procedures really matter.


  6. i totally feel for you, bud. by the way, did you fly coach? i’d love to hear what you have to say about that experience — the experience you pay for with your hard earned.

    for my part, i was raised in a country where most people never make enough money to buy a plane ticket to anywhere, so even though i get to fly about 20 times a year now, i’m generally pretty excited to even be at an airport.

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