Counting on safer skies on one finger(print)
TORONTO — When embarking or disembarking a plane, or entering a foreign country, people ought to have the expectation of limited privacy. We expect, when we travel, that we will be asked questions, asked to show documents and possibly be searched. Since Sept. 11, 2001, this is not simply something we should expect, but something we should insist upon.
But the implementation of US-VISIT last week, the new system by which many visitors to the United States will be photographed and biometrically fingerprinted, has not brought out the best in everyone. One Brazilian official made the requisite - and dumb - Nazi analogy and insisted that Americans in turn be fingerprinted when entering Brazil. This caused an American Airlines pilot to lift his middle finger when being photographed at São Paulo International Airport last week. (The emphatic pilot agreed to pay a $12,775 fine in exchange for not being charged.)
Canadians are exempt from the fingerprinting unless traveling on certain kinds of visas. But previously able to visit the US with only a driver's license, Canadians, since Sept. 11, are now told it is "highly recommended" they bring along a passport. When you've had it easy, any condition can seem like a huge infringement.
Fingerprinting carries with it any number of negative connotations, which may explain people's ire. But we are not on "Law & Order." And is it really such a violation? Where travel is concerned, I think I am knowledgeable, having lived in France, Japan, and Turkey and having traveled to many other countries. I was once even subjected to a grueling luggage search by El Al (including an interrogation and boot removal), fairly embarrassing at the time, but which ended with a cheerful apology from a cute soldier with a gigantic gun. I looked at it as a small price to pay for safety. El Al has not had a hijacking in more than 30 years.
In the mid-1990s I worked in a Japanese car-part factory, not far from Mount Fuji. My second day there I spent a fast-paced morning at the local police station being photographed and fingerprinted for what was commonly referred to as my "gaijin card" (foreigner card.) Smack-dab on it was my fingerprint. I was told to take it everywhere and to hand it back to authorities when I left Japan for good. I do not remember feeling as though I had been robbed of my civil liberties.
Perhaps this is because I had just arrived in Japan after teaching in an Istanbul high school. While my overall experience there was invaluable, it made me uncomfortable that the Turkish version of a gaijin card stated my religion. This I now think was far more a violation of my civil liberties than a fingerprint. After all, one leaves one's fingerprints everywhere, but whether anyone else should know my faith should be up to me, except under the most extreme of circumstances. But when in Rome.... I filled my card out and showed it at borders and airports, and in other places on the odd occasion I was asked to show it.
The US-VISIT system avoids the randomness of what I experienced overseas. By fingerprinting citizens of certain countries across the board, the possibility that persons will be singled out by ethnicity is avoided. By checking against terrorist watch lists, Americans are safer - as are tourists and foreign workers within US borders.
What should concern us is just how effective US-VISIT will be. A two-month test program in Atlanta caught 21 people (out of 20,000) wanted on various charges, including rape and immigration fraud, so surely this system can limit crime. But will it prevent another Sept. 11?
What's certain is that no measure is perfect. US-VISIT is a reasonable response to circumstances brought about in 2001.
We have been forced to try out new tactics and forced, sadly, to forfeit trust. And that is what we need to remember as we curse the airport lineups and biometric screens - the ease with which people used to travel has been taken away by Osama bin Laden, not Tom Ridge or George Bush.
• Rondi Adamson's conservative social commentary appears frequently in the Canadian press.