Warning: Not for the sensitive. Stop reading right now if you’re not a jaded cynic; there’s no shame in it.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware of the chaos caused by the recent seven-country immigration ban. Of particular interest to those pillars of rectitude, the unbiased press, was a picture of a five-year-old in handcuffs. Which, while indeed horrific, was only one of many stories told about the events that followed.
The trials of one child, horrible though they no doubt were, have no bearing at all on where I’m taking this. More to the point, the collected individual stories we’re certain to be hearing in graphic detail over at least the next several months are also immaterial. As human beings, we must shudder in horror and act in sympathy, but we here are concerned with matters of tactics, of strategy, of war in all its awful truth — and our humanity has no place on that battlefield. We must pass beyond our feelings if we are to find a true path from here. Otherwise, we will be unable to function, to make the choices we need to.
Likewise, I’m not going to talk at all about whether this was the fault of the Trump Administration, the Obama Administration (which first came up with what eventually became the ban), the Congress that passed the initial law in a bipartisan landslide — none of that is material. Worthy of note, perhaps, but blame is not my business, not here, not today. Finding the reasons, though, is.
And they are not hard to find.
When the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015” passed in December of that year, it did so amid accolades and massive bipartisan support. The press gave mixed reviews; half were outraged at the apparent racial and religious profiling, and the other half were cautiously optimistic about the improvement in travel security. After all, this didn’t begin with the law, nor even with the original bill written a year before.
As best as I can tell, this began on September 11th, 2001, when Saudi passports were recovered from one of the crash sites. Once it was suspected (and soon confirmed) that the attackers that day had arrived in this country legally, had received training here, and were apparently funded by our allies, a massive program to upgrade security on international travel was begun. Over the next few years, the new precautions began bearing fruit; we rarely hear anything about attacks that didn’t happen, but a few were prevented in a fashion that was too public to be concealed.
One of these precautions had to do with high-end electronic passports with, among other things, unique identifiers tied to a common database. All this made forgery extremely difficult. They could still be acquired under false pretenses, but the passports themselves were quite hard to duplicate or alter. And, due to the increased security this afforded, travel between several compliant countries became possible even without a formal transit visa — a rare case where increased security actually improved the lot of travelers.
However, in several countries undergoing civil wars, regional government offices containing the equipment needed to manufacture these new passports were captured by insurgents. In particular, areas in Syria and Iraq fell under the control of the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh. The discovery of corruption in the Iranian civil service and the violence in Sudan were two more holes in the new system. Eventually, the list of nations with insecure passport controls made it to seven, but for now it was four.
Aside: Notably absent from this list is Saudi Arabia. The funding for many terror attacks and entire organizations originated in that country, and their passports were used on 9/11, so why exclude them? Well, as it happens, their passport records are completely modernized and were made entirely available to American intelligence and control, so the security holes simply didn’t exist there. But back to the main thread.
During the much of the Bush Administration and throughout most of Obama’s presidency, the United States practiced a doctrine called, unofficially, ‘tag and release’. The idea was to permit suspicious individuals to pass through immigration portals, and then be carefully watched to see if they would lead us to terror cells. This was at best a mixed success; several drug-smuggling operations were indeed discovered, but due to the method by which the information was gained, no prosecution could be attempted. On the other hand, part of the successful prosecution against Lynne Stewart, lawyer to the “Blind Sheikh”, was thanks to a pilot version of this program, and it did net several other positive results.
But over time ‘tag and release’ came to be seen as a failure, and the dangers of it were shown over and over to be greater than any benefit — most notably that it tainted smuggling investigations and interfered with prosecution in many instances where the harm permitted was far greater than any gain in anti-terrorism efforts.
Other solutions were sought, and one seized on was to upgrade passports with modern biometrics, some of which had been implemented during the earlier improvement steps. And, while these were being deployed, the obvious security hole — the stolen passport manufacturing equipment, not to mention potentially hostile foreign governments — was addressed in part by the Visa Waiver Law mentioned above. By this time, the list of countries was increased to seven as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Into this came Donald Trump. He was elected on a platform of isolationism, and he kept his pledge by generating an Executive Order designed to change the projected higher level of scrutiny mandated by the law into a near-complete immigration ban for six months. (I discuss that here, though not politely.) Again, I’m not going to talk about whether what he did was legal or moral — just say yes to the one and no to the other and move on. What is certain, however, is that the sudden descent of our airports into chaos over the weekend was not intended, but that the detention of over a hundred people with suspect papers was.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it is my belief that the list of people impacted was generated as a perfectly natural error, a typo that wasn’t caught due to the Administration’s desire for secrecy. It has been, bit by bit, pared down to a more sane description, and the White House has spun the resulting chaos in a manner to further control the news cycle — as is their wont. And all of that adds up to a distraction from the main point at issue.
Which is not refugees, incidentally. It’s difficult to disagree with the contention that most refugees are better off staying near to their home countries, but on the other hand — what is America if not a nation founded on accepting refugees? And that entire debate, worthy though it is, has nothing to do with the core question.
In a free society, it is impracticable to make the population safe from a group of people who seek to do harm, especially those using terror tactics. It simply cannot be done. They can be delayed and inconvenienced, and the chances of preventing some attacks and catching some attackers can be improved, but there can be no certainty of safety.
Our borders are still porous, as is the case with any free society. We have a virtually unguarded border with Canada, another with Mexico through which pass billions of dollars worth of drugs almost unimpeded, and vast unmonitorable coastlines. To be frank, given all that, what possible use is high-end passport control except to make infiltration marginally more inconvenient? So long as we maintain such essential freedoms as travel and privacy, we will never be safe — and that’s the price we pay, for the most part gladly, in order to keep these freedoms.
Right now, we are on the fine edge of these fundamental liberties. We’re denying them to a small group of people on the grounds that, as non-citizens, they aren’t protected by the Constitution, but that justification can only take us so far. As with torture and Guantanamo, we run the danger of sacrificing our values in exchange for a little temporary safety.
So the question is, how far should we go?
Because, make no mistake: You and I, right now, have the opportunity to stop this, or influence it, or to watch it spin out and see what happens. We have the power to go march with the protestors and to call our Congressmen if we choose — and this is definitely an issue worth marching about and calling about. I’m not talking about the plight of the refugees or the innocent people who were stranded or turned back — I’m talking about the 109 people who President Trump says were detained. Who are they? Where are they? What have we done to them?
But now that I’ve half-convinced you to go march at an airport, let me stop you for one moment. This next bit is the hard part, but trust me: It’s necessary.
It’s going to turn out, in a couple of days, that Trump’s excessive order was somehow justified. We will have discovered invaluable information, or we will have halted a terror attack, or we will have identified someone smuggling sex slaves — something, I don’t know what, will appear to justify all this. It could be an FBI report or secret intelligence. But, given the vast number of travelers who were intensely screened, the odds are extremely high that a lot of them were up to no good, and they were probably caught.
And remember, this isn’t about Trump personally. It’s a hell of a lot bigger than him, far more important. Forget the man entirely; put him out of your mind. And consider this:
If it turns out we just stopped a terror attack on Washington D.C., a poison gas attack on the Metro system that would have killed tens of thousands of innocent people and shut down the machinery of government for a week, causing untold destruction and chaos — at the cost of 109 people temporarily detained…
Was it worth it?