Some years back, we finished playing our last show at Festival de Voyageur in Winnipeg on a Sunday afternoon; we were traveling in two vehicles, so the Ontario contingent headed east for the TransCanada to Kenora and the subsequent trees-and-rocks drive of about 21 hours back to southern Ontario. I was going to Ithaca to see my sweetie so I headed south, toward North Dakota. I was zipping down the road, making really good time toward the border station. Lo and behold, there was no line-up at all. I pulled up to the booth with absolutely no waiting.
Sometimes this is a great thing. Pull in; show your passport; take off. Other times it seems that a lack of traffic may make the gendarmerie feel bored or ineffectual. Then either they want something to do to pass the time or they feel a need to prove their value to the security of the homeland by flexing their mandated authority. Whatever the case, I was selected to get the second degree (it is pretty much like the third degree up to but not including the latex gloves).
I was okay with this because I had nothing to hide. I never do; it would be the zenith of stupidity to carry anything illegal or try to sneak something which needed reporting across the border. US crossing guards have always had the power to deny anyone (unless it is an American) entry to the country. And being denied entry once is grounds for being denied entry again (have you stopped beating your wife?). In fact, several years ago the front-line guys and gals were given the wherewithal to summarily ban anyone from entry to the Land of the Free for five years for any reason they wished or for no reason at all. And there was no recourse to the courts in such a case. Considering that about half of the playing that we did in North America was in the US, why would we put that significant portion of our living in jeopardy? We would not.
So, feeling no trepidation, I pulled into the search bay as instructed, took my bass out of the car, handed over the keys and went to the rather Spartan waiting room – about ten feet by five with a white, acoustic tile ceiling, off-white, oil-based painted cinder-block walls, one door, three plastic chairs, and one window. Because of the angle of that one window I could only see some of the official proceedings going on at my car, but it appeared that all was going well enough as a crew of three went through all my stuff. They would look at something and then set it aside as if finished with it. They fished through the glove box, pulled out my suitcase and rifled my socks, underwear and other dirty laundry (fun job, eh?). Then they began going through my brief case, one of them pulled out my writer’s notebook.
There is a lot of different stuff in that book. Mostly it is ideas for songs or stories or interesting thoughts that I have had or have heard, mostly written down while driving. Not two weeks earlier, I had been going through the book at home and had noticed entries in several places which were quotations from several members of the Bush administration speaking (prior to the invasion of Iraq) about the WMD which were the reason for the war. These inaccuracies, though they had not yet been proven to be such, rankled. So I had written down each hair-raising tale of the doom that awaited us all if we were fool enough to wait for international inspections rather than attacking sooner. Also included was each bold statement of the administration’s absolute certainty about what weapons there were, what quantities of these weapons there were, and even where they were secreted. Well, being the organised type (as I sometimes am) I consolidated all these quotations onto a single page, and at the top of that page, in block-cap letters wrote the heading “WMD”.
So you can probably guess what happened when the eyes of the customs guy fell on this page. He wanted an explanation… no, actually he demanded an explanation! But where the rubber hit the road, he did not really want one because when I told him that these were notes of things said by his President and His aides de camp, he said, “Normal people don’t do that”. He just did not get it. What he did get was his superior who also did not get it.
After that I sat by myself in the cinder-block cubicle… and sat… and sat. And finally, the superior’s superior arrived. He got it. He had been at home, 45 minutes’ drive away, eating Sunday dinner with his family when he got the call asking him to drop everything and come in to work to question some sort of potential/probable terrorist (me).
He asked me to tell him about the notes; I told him, as I had told the others that they were simply quotations from the administration in his country, about the WMD which were the basis for the war in Iraq. He invited me into his office at the opposite end of the facility from the search bay. So under the somewhat vacant smile of George W., and that slightly twisted leer of Dick Cheney, he read down the page of WMD notes. He then raised his gaze to me and, stifling what I perceived as a slightly embarrassed smirk, he took a deep breath and said, “I am required to ask you this…
Are you a terrorist?”
“No,” I answered jauntily (or at least as jauntily as possible under the circumstances);
“Have you ever been a terrorist?”
“No,” I answered with an air of je ne sais quoi (though I’m not sure what it was);
“Do you plan to become a terrorist?”
And since I could not think of anything really clever to say instead, I answered “No.”
Wow. I sure was glad that I was not a terrorist or I would have had to answer, “Ah, shucks... Ya got me. Yes, by golly, I am; I have; and I do!” (because terrorists, as we all know, are honest to a fault) and then I would have been shipped off to Guantanamo and made to listen to Iron Maiden at 120 dB – enough to drive anyone mad.
He told me that, because of the required protocols, my name and identification numbers and all salient information about me had been entered into their gigantic terrorist-finding-database-computer-search-watchout-blah-blah-system and that it would take another 15 minutes to determine whether or not I had already been determined to be a danger by someone else, somewhere else at some other time. Turns out I was not. I could have told them that:
a) on the basis of my own knowledge of me, and
b) because I would not have been given the P2 that was stapled in my passport if I had not checked out as at least relatively squeaky-clean.
He told me that I would need to wait out those 15 minutes in the lobby – better than sitting in the solitary confinement of the concrete-block room anyway. I think it was less than ten minutes when he came back and without words, gave me a look that implied, “I’m really sorry we had to go through this”, handed me my writer’s notebook and my passport and said simply, “You’re free to go”. And off he went back to his now congealed gravy and rock-hard Yorkshire puddings, and off I drove in a very straight line south through North Dakota.