Unsafe Are Us in an Age of Travel Bans

By Robert McGarvey


The next trip I take overseas I will use my Irish passport and I probably will also try to polish my Irish accent.  I am feeling ever less safe as an American and that is because even my friends who are living abroad are heaping calumny on US citizens, mainly because of actions taken by President Trump, notably his ban for 90 days on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US.  

Trump also called a halt to all refugee admissions for 120 days.  Syrian refugees are barred indefinitely.

You know about this. Who doesn’t? Protests erupted at many US airports and also airports abroad.  

One survey says that fewer than 30% of Americans support the ban and that should be unsurprising because there isn’t much to like about it.

And now things are different today, I believe, for American travelers abroad.

For years I have heard mockery of US presidents abroad – George W Bush was a favorite target in London pubs, for instance, but I have to say I heard plenty of laughter about Bill Clinton in Munich coffee shops.

Now I am not hearing laughter. I am hearing anger. Despair. Something bordering on hatred. A view of the US as a bully nation.

I can’t argue with those feelings and even though I am an American citizen, I will be leaving that credential at home for the foreseeable future.

I am waiting until the US’s international reputation is on the mend.

I am all for making the US safer but I see absolutely no gain to be had in banning all admissions from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.  15 of the 19 hijackers involved in 911 were Saudis. Saudi Arabia is not on this list.

Neither is Pakistan.

But – really – the whole idea of a total ban on certain countries makes no sense,  Just as a freeze on refugee admissions makes no sense. This reminds me of something I did 40 years ago when I lived in a cockroach infested Washington DC apartment and one night, in an angry despair as I watched yet another roach scamper across the wall, I flung the beer bottle that happened to be in hand at the creature.

The bottle broke. The mess – glass, beer – was substantial.  Of course I missed the roach.  

I see this Trump executive order as a moment where the beer bottle flies at the roach and misses it.

We are left to clean up the mess.

What I really don’t get is why Trump did not command extensive use of big data analytics to thoroughly vet incoming passengers. As far back as 2008, experts talked about the clear benefits in homeland security that can result from data mining.

Does this involve a violation of privacy? It doesn’t have to.  The public web is full of information – about me, you, most everybody we know.  Will this information help pinpoint who should be singled out for intensive vetting? You bet it could.

And it can happen in real time. Intelligently. With minimal – maybe no – disruption to most travelers.

With air travel, the US government knows who is flying in from abroad and what their passport/visa status is. That’s plenty of information to initiate a vetting of public web data and how hard is it to write a program that flags some people – a small number – for detailed interviews on arrival?

Then tap into a few non public databases – Interpol, the FBI, etc.

Only a handful of people will be inconvenienced in this search and, in most cases, there will be a prima facie good reason for it.

There’s no need to discriminate against whole countries and people.

And maybe even the people who are singled out will accept it.

I know, maybe 10 years ago, I was pulled out of an arrivals line in Puerto Vallarta and taken into an office for questioning.  As best I could figure out (my knowledge of Spanish is poor) a records check had unearthed somebody with the same last name who had an outstanding warrant.

Last name.  Not first and last. Not first, last and middle initial.

Just last name,

After five minutes of questions, the police told me to get on my way.

Was I mad? No.  A little puzzled – I’m still puzzled – but it was no big deal.

People will forgive intrusions that have a justification (however slender).

Banning everybody from Iran is just plain dumb.  Maybe even cruel and unusual.  How many enemies will this make the US?

Ditto for banning refugees. That’s dumb and cruel.

And there is absolutely no security benefit to be had.

That’s the deadend of the Trump executive order.  It inconveniences hundreds of thousands but it benefits nobody and this “self-inflicted wound” just may bring us a bumper crop of enemies.

And for those of us who travel overseas, be ready for a bucket of anti American slop to be poured on you, pretty much wherever you go,

Me, I will travel on my Irish passport and sidestep the slop.


1 thought on “Unsafe Are Us in an Age of Travel Bans”

  1. In the early days of the no-fly list, my name was flagged a couple of times. The airline personnel went into some back room and did a little more investigating, finding out that the “bad version” of me with the same name, fortunately for me, did not have the same birth date, so I was free to fly. Was I unduly inconvenienced? No. Angry? No. But what would have happened if that 1 in 365 chance had occurred and the bad version had the same birth date? Maybe there would have been some more checking that the airline could have done. Reasonable precautions should be tolerated. Blanket restrictions and denial of travel make no sense for security but only for a false sense of security.

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