My seventy-second trip to the United States, in November 2002, begins just like every other one in recent times. I arise at 5 AM, shave, shower and dress. The car comes for me at 6 AM. I am at Gatwick by 6:45 AM and Mr Singh, the Sikh security officer, asks me the usual questions about my computer and other items, before putting another of his initialled airport security stickers on the back of my passport and letting me approach the check-in desk. I am checked-in by 7 AM, and have secured my usual seat.
Today, I'm sitting next to a bearded man who looks like a Taliban (although he is white). He turns out to be an American, from Georgia, who is with the Department of Defence, and is just returning home from his seventh trip to Pakistan. He cannot stop describing how wonderful the people are in the North, so hospitable, so generous, no matter how poor they are. He loves to have keema paratha for breakfast, and he bemoans the British whom he works with there, who complain endlessly if they can't have a traditional fat-soaked English breakfast, with the stewed tomatoes mutilated just right. He says he works in Information Technology. (But there’s an implication that this is just a cover).
There was only one sinister incident that took place during his time in Pakistan. He was walking through a traditional marketplace, when a man who was facing him began reaching inside his tunic. My American friend, thinking that the stranger was about to pull out a knife or a gun, acted as anyone would in the circumstances. He lunged at the man, knocked him over backwards and sat on him. The 'weapon' turned out to be a tobacco pipe. He apologised, helped the stranger up and the two of them went about their business.
The plane lands in Atlanta and taxies to the gate. Immediately when the seat belt light goes out, I slide smoothly from my seat, deftly extract my slim leather attaché case from the overhead compartment and am waiting at the exit door by the forward galley in seconds; the first one off the plane as usual with the arrogance of familiar routine. As we wait for the door to open, the American Taliban-like IT specialist is chatting with the flight attendant. He mentions that he'll be home in about two hours, “insh'Allah”. “What does that mean?” she asks him.
Their voices fade behind me as I stride swiftly across the docking bridge and into the terminal.
Atlanta Airport is a huge facility, with voluminous corridors and a massive immigration hall. Timing is everything here; if two or three other flights arrived just before yours, it can be chaotic, with huge lines, even for the Americans.
I'm the first person from my aircraft to reach the hall, and it looks like they are just finishing the remains of another flight. The six booths at the far side are for Visitors; the two furthest ones have the shortest queues. I do reverse profiling of INS officers. They can vary a lot in terms of friendliness and suspicion, but the worst that any of them has ever done is to ask to see my return ticket, to ensure that I'm not going to overstay, so it's no big deal really.
These two have the same profile; they are both white, middle-aged men. The one at the furthest booth has the shortest line of all, so I go there, with about six people in front of me. From the outset, it is apparent that these two men are Mr Friendly and Mr Grumpy. Mr Friendly is welcoming visitors to his country with a vociferous good humour that can be heard all around that end of the hall. Mr Grumpy is persistent in his questioning and exudes a cold, cynical suspicion. I am in Mr Grumpy's queue and my immediate instinct is to switch lines, but I think, 'Why, what difference will it make? So he'll ask me about my job title in General Electric and want to see my return ticket; big deal. Switching lines is not necessary for someone who has nothing to hide.'
Mr Grumpy finishes hassling the scruffy young Frenchman in front of me and then it's my turn. I approach confidently, say 'Hello' cheerfully, and put down in front of him my completed forms and my worn burgundy passport with 68 US entry stamps in it, (as well as countless others). His first question takes me completely by surprise: “Have you been to the United States before?”
I resist the very American behaviour of prefacing my response with, “Duh…” which is used to indicate that this is a stupid question with an obvious answer. Instead I reply calmly, “Yes, many times.”
From there it goes downhill fast. Noticing that I was born in Karachi, and the presence of a Pakistan multiple-entry visa, he becomes fixated on the possibility that I might be a dual national. He does not seem to notice the significance of the fact that I also have an Indian visa. How many people have both of those?
My seventy-second entry into the United States does not go well. The final question is the clincher. He is reading from a piece of paper taped-up inside his booth and he asks me if I am over 45. I reply that I am not. Wham! I've been profiled. I fit the three criteria of a potential terrorist: born in a listed country, male, aged between 18 and 45 years.
Mr Grumpy gathers my documents into a neat pile, places them inside a bright red folder and hands this bundle to me. For the first time ever, I am being sent for secondary questioning. The bright red folder that I am holding ensures that I cannot slip out of the Immigration hall into Baggage Claim. Instead, a guard points me towards the secondary inspection room.
This is a sombre place. A few huddled masses sit on plastic chairs, waiting to be called for questioning by INS officers, who are behind a counter. Assimilating the process for the first time, I place my red folder into a rack on the counter, where it is in a proxy queue on my behalf, with other folders representing their human subjects.
I'm feeling hot, nervous, outraged, afraid; there’s a sense of bureaucratic miscarriage. I don’t belong here. I am British. I’m a senior person in a respected American company. This is my seventy-second arrival into the United States. I travel the globe with impunity. Why am I sitting with suspicious foreigners in an interrogation room? Duh, it’s because I am a suspicious foreigner.
The INS officer at the counter is questioning a South American girl about the fact that she now seems to be living in the US. How is she supporting herself, when she is not authorised to work? I answer the same question in my mind, visualising the Corporate American Express card in my slim leather wallet. (I don't think that she has one).
An attractive female INS officer emerges from a back room and deliberately seeks and removes my folder from the rack (ahead of the queue). What is going on? They've been alerted to this mistake, obviously.
She stares at a computer screen and then speaks to the officer next to her. “It says 'Appears to be innocent'. What does that mean?” He is not sure.
I am grateful to Mr Grumpy for at least entering that into his computer, before giving me a red folder.
She looks up and identifies me sitting in the front row and calls for me by name. What happens next is completely bizarre.
She and another INS officer (cheerful, friendly and chubby) take me outside the questioning room and lead me towards a special booth at the very far side of the hall. But, as we proceed, they are both discussing why I have been selected for Special Alien Registration. They are not really sure, but figure that it must be because I might be a Pakistani-British dual national. Ms Attractive is cynical about whether it is really necessary for me to undergo Special Registration. “But he comes here all the time,” she argues. (I like her).
Mr Cheerful is sympathetic, but cautious. They decide to leave me waiting at the Special Registration booth and go to ask their supervisor.
This is a strange experience. I am left standing by myself at a remote booth with some special equipment. Everyone from my flight has gone through Immigration already. An entire flight of French people is processed while I wait. I watch them disappearing into the Baggage area.
The great hall is eerily silent when Ms Attractive and Mr Cheerful return. They are apologetic, sympathetic and wonderfully friendly, but regret that I must be subjected to Special Registration. Ms Attractive is supposed to do it, but has never done this before, so Mr Cheerful offers to help her, and then ends up doing it himself when she is called away.
He does not appear to have done it himself for real either. We both struggle through the questions emitted by the PC and he keys my answers in. The response time is terrible. He helps me to calculate the approximate years of my parents’ births (I know the days and months) and laughs when I confirm that I have a US bank account, but quip that I don't have much in it. When was I last at University, where, and what was the course? 1987, Stirling in Scotland, Chemistry PhD. (I don’t say that it was unfinished; well, he doesn’t ask).
Another passing INS officer (Mr Helpful) shows him how to use the digital camera and add my mug-shot to the computer record, along with my scanned fingerprints.
Finally, the computer gives me my very own Alien Special Registration Number, which Mr Cheerful writes into my passport, alongside my 90-day visa waiver entry stamp. He also gives me a helpful information pack about Special Registration and all that it entails. The key point is that if I should stay more than 30 days, then I must report into an INS office between the 30th and 40th day, to tell them what I've been doing and with documentary proof such as my hotel bills or, if I’ve been staying with a friend, one of his utility bills. Also, when I'm leaving the US, I must check in with INS on the way out, so that they can confirm my departure.
Nearly two hours later than expected, I enter the Baggage Hall. My suitcase is waiting by itself, all the others long gone. I've done this arrival routine so many times before, but now everything feels different. I don’t feel like a sophisticated globe-trotting James Bond anymore; I am a Special Registration Alien, a potential terrorist suspect. I feel different; will people know it and treat me differently?
At the rental car counter, the woman recognises me and tries hard to be friendly, but I’m feeling very down. I decline the talking Navigation System, because I know my way around Atlanta now and the $8 per day soon adds up.
I should have taken the Navigation System. The softly spoken, but firm and insistent, American female computer voice might have prevented me taking the wrong freeway out of the airport, so engrossed am I in replaying the events at the airport and trying to analyze what this all means.
I arrive at the office really late. I might as well have gone straight to the hotel. I enter the office using one of my Corporate ID cards. I have several of these, for different GE offices around the world. I’m reasonably senior; a lot of people report to me and ask me what to do and to authorise things. My Atlanta colleagues are friendly and welcoming as always, but now I don’t feel comfortable. I feel as if I have something to hide, because I’m a Special Registration Alien. My long love affair with America has hit a rocky patch.
I leave the office and head for the Sheraton. Henry and Tatiana are at the front desk and greet me warmly as always. This place is my home in Atlanta. They have held my usual suite and they arrange for my luggage to be taken-up. But, I am different now. Would they treat me differently if they knew my sinister new status?
I can’t convey how hurt I feel, how emotionally this has affected me; America doesn’t trust me anymore. Somehow, I can’t blame America, not mainstream, regular middle-of-the road optimistic America. She was hit very hard and completely by surprise that sinister day, when her easy-going trust was betrayed by men twisted and brainwashed into hatred by events and policies and actions of which the collective mass of America, for the most part, does not have any idea or understanding. This is a situation so complex that few have any grasp of it, and yet many suffered for the actions and arrogance of a few.
I don’t blame America, but I still feel hurt, and I still replay the whole process in my mind.
This trip is a couple of weeks long, so I get to spend the weekend in the US. Ironically, I have arranged to visit a cousin, who lives near Washington, works for the Department of Homeland Security and reports directly to the White House. I haven’t seen him since he came to London about fourteen years ago. Like me, he was born in Karachi, but he is an American citizen, whereas I am British. Despite all of my accumulated time in the US, I have never visited him or Washington before (apart from a job interview conducted in a Washington Dulles Airport terminal once). He shows me around with relaxed ease and I am impressed as he tells me about his job within the Administration (the non-Classified stuff, of course).
This is the remarkable, reassuring part about this whole sad, complex affair. I learn from him that this Special Registration is not personal; it is America struggling to cope with an ugly reality thrust upon her. Everyone he works with knows that he is a Muslim of Pakistani origin, but his loyalty and integrity are not questioned. He relates how a few days earlier, he was fasting (this being Ramadan) and was in the White House in a very senior level security meeting as sunset approached. An Admiral looked at his watch and asked him, “Don’t you need to go and break your fast right now?” He acknowledged this and excused himself from the meeting for a few minutes and no-one thought anything of it.
I find this amazing and comforting. Nothing is as black-and-white as those who would like to deal only with simple, unquestioning hatred would like it to be (on all sides). I don’t have an easy answer on the situation with Iraq, because I realise the incredible complexity of this whole tangled web, and that most of my sorry species prefer not to deal with complexity.
He takes me to see the White House. This weekend, it is not possible to take me inside, as there are massive preparations underway for a Bill signing event on Monday. I stand outside and am struck at how much smaller it is than I imagined, and how close we are able to stand. I take pictures and the Secret Service sniper on the roof, dressed all in black, waves nonchalantly.
A couple of important looking men come outside, through the Security gate, and recognise my cousin. They stop and chat and he introduces me. They are extremely cordial and I don’t mention that I’m a Special Registration Alien. It doesn’t seem to matter now.
My flight back to Atlanta is on Sunday night. Sitting at the gate at Washington-Dulles airport, I notice an extremely smartly dressed thirty-something white man from one of the higher socio-economic groups, waiting for the same flight. He has a smart briefcase and leather suit carrier, and looks well-educated. I know that these are subjective judgments, based on personal prejudice, but I’m pretty sure that my superficial evaluation is accurate. He probably has a Harvard MBA, too. Looking at the people waiting to board this small jet, the person most likely to be a terrorist, based on simplistic demographics, would be me. When the flight is called, the Harvard MBA gets up to board first, as he is in First Class, but he is pulled aside for a very thorough personal search, which takes nearly ten minutes. I take my Economy seat without any problem. I am grateful that I’m not being profiled everywhere I go, that even in the aftermath of dehumanising terror, America at a federal level is struggling to be fair and unbiased.
A few days later my US trip comes to end and I am back at Atlanta airport, having checked-in and been through Security. As a Special Registration Alien, I have to register with the INS before boarding my flight, so that they have an airtight record of my departure. I wait at the Information Desk in the Terminal and they phone the INS to send someone. Forty minutes later he walks up from the Arrivals Hall. They’ve just had some flights come in and they were all busy. I am the sole Special Registration Alien waiting to be recorded. The INS officer is Indian, definitely not born in the US; he still has that slight hint of an offshore accent. He is friendly and fills out the form, commenting, “This is such a pain for you guys.”
I return to London overnight and I’m the first one off the plane, moving swiftly through a seemingly deserted Gatwick in the early hours of Saturday morning. I am not an Alien here; I feel nothing less than elation. I’m the sole person approaching the Immigration officers, holding my burgundy extra-thick passport. There are two of them, both women, one on the left and one on the right. Inexplicably, I veer to a different side at the last moment and the scorned woman says, “There goes a man with no taste,” as the other woman gives my passport photo a cursory glance. They are joking with me. How glad I am to see them, they have no idea. And they make me feel like James Bond again.