Tyler Brûlé: My time as a hostage at Miami International Airport
By Tyler Brûlé
Friday, March 23, 2007
Earlier this week I was involved in a hostage drama. Don't worry, you didn't miss any front-page news, because the particular and rather peculiar form of captivity I was subjected to has become fully institutionalized to the point that my captors sported uniforms and name tags and get their supervisors to sign overtime chits for their troubles.
The incident started at what has to rank as the worst port in the United States — Miami International Airport. En route from the Dominican Republic to Singapore via Zurich I joined one of the surprisingly short visitor lines in the immigration hall and watched the Formica-encased officer go about his duties. A kindly gentleman from American Airlines inquired about my documents, and I couldn't resist asking him why I had to go through the trouble of entering the United States when I was simply connecting.
"If we didn't do it like this, we'd never catch all the baddies," he replied.
"All the who?"
"It's better that we do things like this because we can catch all the bad people in the world this way," he said while shuffling away.
I couldn't tell if he was reading from a Homeland Security-sanctioned script or was simply freestyling on his response, but it left me with a lot of questions, including:
1. Isn't it better to keep the baddies out of the country altogether rather than letting them get too close?
2. If I was a real, real baddie and a smart one, wouldn't I avoid transiting through the United States altogether?
3. What about the 99.9 percent of travelers who aren't baddies? Isn't it a hassle for them to add an extra 90 minutes to their connection times?
4. What about all the struggling U.S. airlines? Shouldn't the government be doing everything in its power to make life easier for them and their passengers?
5. Who ever said the United States had to carry the burden of capturing all baddies?
After four passengers and a full 15 minutes, I got the nod to approach the booth. I walked up to the counter and placed my British passport and documents on the Formica. I usually enter the United States on my Canadian passport, but last week my messy office conspired against me and I left London without it — what a mistake.
On a U.K. passport you have to go through the tedious visa waiver and fingerprint process. When my left index finger didn't "read" on the electronic pad, the officer asked to look at it and then asked that I wet it on a paper towel and try again. When it came up blank, I explained that I had nerve damage in my left arm that has caused some muscle wastage in my hands.
"How did that happen?" he asked.
I was about to tell him the truth but then thought better of it. Judging by his tone and shifty manner, I said "accident" rather than gunshot wound sustained in Afghanistan. By this point it didn't matter anyway.
"So you're telling me you entered the U.S. from Norway via Frankfurt, spent a day in the Dominican Republic and you're now flying to Singapore through Switzerland? What is your line of work?"
"I'm a journalist," I replied.
At this point my documents were passed on to one of his colleagues and I was escorted down a corridor. "Sit here and wait till you're called." I watched my documents disappear behind another Formica counter. This was the point where I reckon I was officially taken hostage.
At first scan it was standing room only, but I eventually found a seat in what can only be described as a holding pen — cobalt blue vinyl seating, dirty carpets, an array of surveillance cameras and the smell of nervous sweat. Despite the 100-plus people crammed into the space (not including staff), it was remarkably quiet. It took only a few minutes to figure out why.
Following the arrival of a family from Colombia, a burly officer emerged from a side room and boomed: "For your safety and ours, could everyone please sit down to avoid injury. We will process U.S. citizens and U.S. residents first, all others will be processed afterwards. You are not allowed to use mobile phones. I repeat, do not use mobile phones."
The room fell silent. The gentleman next to me, a D.J. of Pakistani origin on a U.K. passport, complained that this happened to him all the time.
"They try to wear you down. Last time it took four hours," he said. "They just don't want me to come back."
With no water, no toilets and little fresh air, it was not a snapshot that Florida tourism or any other body hoping to up U.S. tourist numbers would have been proud of. After two and half hours and much complaining, I finally got the call.
"You should really do something about this tear in your passport," said the officer.
Having missed my flight to Zurich and left my boyfriend Mats somewhere out in arrivals wondering what had happened to me, I was free.
"Enjoy your stay in the U.S., sir."
And all I wanted to do was transfer.