On Secrecy & Authority
One week ago, my wife, Lindsey, and I returned home from a fabulous week in Ireland for our honeymoon. By the time we had landed, Lindsey was suffering from some painful gastritis (she has a very sensitive stomach/GI system) and walking was exacerbating it, so we took advantage of the free wheelchairs being offered right inside the jet bridge. A very helpful young guy henceforth wheeled Lindsey around the airport. We joked that Lindsey’s red merino wool sweater that we bought in Kenmare adorably exaggerated the “little old lady” look of her in the wheelchair. We got to the customs booth and presented our passports. The officer was taking a while with Lindsey’s, so I fiddled around on Instagram on my phone until the officer sternly and sharply instructed me that there is “NO TEXTING” while in the immediate area of the booth (I guess). Lindsey told me she was still feeling the gastritis pain. After another couple of minutes I got the impression something was wrong. They were asking Lindsey if she’d ever notified them of a lost passport.
Suddenly the officer was standing up and getting out of the booth and instructing Lindsey to follow her. I’m carrying our onboard bags and I have no idea what’s going on, but I immediately recalled a strange incident that came up earlier this year around tax time: Lindsey had received a W-2 form for a job she’d never heard of for an employer she’d never heard of. It was extremely strange and a little disturbing—we couldn’t tell if it was some kind of bizarre mistake or evidence of straight-up identity theft. She checked her bank accounts, of course, and couldn’t find any unusual activity. It was as though someone had taken a job under Lindsey’s name with her (our) address!
Lindsey couldn’t find any way to get ahold of the supposed company she supposedly worked for (the address was a residence; I never got up the nerve to just go visit it), and her school semester ramped up and the incident became subsumed by the myriad busy threads of our lives (and THEN we got married—twice!—talk about a distraction!).
The customs officer led us down the hall to a room guarded by two black-uniformed police officers, and before I could even say anything, she was inside the room past the guards and I was being told to go sit “somewhere else.” A cold hand gripped my stomach—I was watching my wife, in a wheelchair, being taken into a room that I wasn’t allowed into, with absolutely no information being given to either of us. It felt like slow motion. I thought to myself, “they’ll just be a minute, it’ll be fine, they just need to figure out what’s going on.” Thankfully the mystery room was partially in sight of our baggage claim belt, so I took a deep breath and went to wait on our baggage, while continuously looking back behind me hoping to see her.
I got our luggage after about 10 or 15 minutes, but no sight of Lindsey. I found a seat, piled up the luggage, kept looking back through the glass wall, no sight of my wife. I tried to read. I waited. I kept looking back hoping to see her. I began to get defensive, and a little angry—naturally in the context of NSA spying revelations my hackles were primed to be raised. For all I knew they were arresting her for traveling with a fraudulent passport—it’s entirely plausible. For all I knew I would be going home tonight without my wife.
After about 20-30 more minutes, I went up to the police officers guarding the mystery room. I felt a little desperate, and more than a little frustrated. Before I said anything they were holding up their hands to block my way, trying to direct me back where I came from. I told them my wife is in there, she’s ill, and I simply have no idea what they’re doing to her. I told them her medicine is in our bags.
While trying to talk at the officers I finally caught a glimpse of my wife sitting in her wheelchair in the back of the room, looking fairly miserable, along with clusters of hispanic families and anonymous individuals. She saw me back but didn’t smile.
The guards were not mean to me; they heard me when I told them she was sick and they explained that she would be attended to as soon as possible and that they were backed up that evening.
I was glad to have at least seen Lindsey and been reassured that she wasn’t in handcuffs. I went back to my waiting spot and read for a little while longer. Eventually she and our wheelchair-attendee materialized and I asked her if she was ok, what happened? They confiscated her passport, she said, because her passport had been reported missing, presumably as some part of an attempt at identity theft. She has to file some claims with social security and apply for a new passport.
This story is not about identity theft or being momentarily hassled by an unfortunate incident. It’s not about airports or the TSA. It’s about secrecy. It’s about that unbelievable, terrifying moment that a loved-one is forced away from you by an authority.
You can tell me that I’m overreacting, that it was routine, that it was normal. To you, I say: try it yourself and see how you feel. In that moment I wondered if maybe—just maybe—this was the barest inkling of what it has been like for untold millions of people throughout history to be on the wrong side of their government. I could not help but notice the similarities: the cold, superior gazes (faceless gazes, in a way), the stark presumption of guilt, the rotting sense of fear in my stomach as my wife was led away (in a wheelchair, no less) and above all, the secrecy. I was not given the merest shred of information, and attempts to acquire it were rebuffed before I even formed a question. But hey, they were just doing their job.
The thought that keeps bubbling up to me, over and over, is this: what’s it going to be like when they come for you? You will be surprised. You will think it’s not happening, that it couldn’t be happening, that it simply couldn’t happen.
We don’t consider ourselves paranoid or afraid. Our lives are completely back to normal. We’ve got our jobs and computers and cats and friends. So it’s not a big deal. Right?