TSA Taught Me Just How Fragile Freedom Is

After minutes of flipping through the pages of my passports, I was asked by a security official, "Why do you have so many Arabic stamps in your passports?"
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I hadn't been back to the United States in more than ten months and was quite stoked about being home for Thanksgiving. As an American born in Paris it has always come naturally to call both countries home. Working as a photojournalist on both sides of the pond and now in South America my partner and I were glad to take this little leap over the equator to visit family for a reunion in Houston, Texas.

We arrived at the airport in Rio de Janeiro more than three hours early. Sitting at McDonald's in front of our gate we shared a hamburger in preparation for our US experience. My partner is Brazilian and had never been in the US during the holidays. Upon boarding I was selected for security screening; with Brazilian cheese bread in one hand and iced maté tea the other, I joked with security officers in Portuguese about being dressed in shorts and flipflops, as summer in Brazil is already well underway. The American Airlines employees replied, "We don't decide who to screen, they tell us." Thinking nothing of it, we boarded the nearly empty plane, grabbed five seats side-by-side, chatted a little before watching the beginning of Minions then fell asleep for the next seven hours.

On arrival in US, my partner went in line with other non-residents and I went to scan my US passport at one of the automated machines. After getting my receipt marked with a giant X by the border police I was invited for yet a secondary screening in a larger waiting room.

I've never been to Miami, and was impressed to see that everyone there spoke Spanish, or was coming from a Central or South American destination. Most people waiting with me were there either to clarify something on their immigration form or because they had flat omitted something. I, however, truly did not understand what I was doing there. I saw no one with there holding a blue passport.

Once my name was called, I was asked about my reasons for being in Brazil, and to hand over my smart phone. I explained that I had a four-year visa on my French passport and work as a foreign correspondent for Le Monde in Rio. After showing my French passport, their first reaction was, "When exactly did you become American?" I further explained that I am American and that my parents are American citizens. They followed that by asking me at what age did I become American. I again explained that I am an American born abroad and that my parents had registered me as American at birth, in Paris.

After minutes of flipping through the pages of my passports, I was asked, "Why do you have so many Arabic stamps in your passports?" I explained that previous to living in Brazil, I had worked for the past four years as a correspondent in the Middle East for many new outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and CNN. After showing proof of publications and verification of my whereabouts, travels, and reporting, I was asked yet again the same questions with specific dates and locations. It was obvious that nothing I was asked could not have been verified online or by publication date. In the meantime I was concerned about my partner, who I imagined was waiting for me at baggage claim. I asked if this would take long, and I was told "no" and they were "finishing up." Little did I know that these were words I would be hear again over the course of the next 10 hours.

Between sessions I was asked informally about my position on the refugee crisis, my political inclinations and all this amid the two televisions blasting from two corners of the room a special report on "Muslims in France," "terrorism" and "the Syrian refugee crisis."

At least three or four hours had passed. It was clear at this point that I wasn't going to be making my connecting flight. I asked if I could somehow contact my partner and tell her to wait for me since we weren't going to make the flight. I was refused any communication with the outside. This did seem inconsistent as other people in the waiting room had their phones in their possession. I grew increasingly annoyed, and thought to myself, "Are they allowed to do this? What are my rights exactly?" I was repeatedly called to the desk to verify random bits about my whereabouts, my family, people I may or may not know and then was asked to sit down again. Every time I wouldn't an officer would come and ask me to kindly to quit pacing and sit down again. I eventually asked the officer who was handling my case and whether I should call a lawyer, and his reply was that I was not under arrest, but simply being detained for investigation.

After about five or six hours, I was told that the second part of the investigation was to search all my belongings. I welcomed the officers to open all my bags and even search me if they would like. Going through my hand luggage they found little carved wooden saints bearing crosses and doves which I explained were souvenirs for loved ones. Then, one of the officers backed up and said, "Oh my, how disrespectful of me, I didn't ask you if you needed time to pray. Would you like to go pray now?" This wasn't the first time the US immigration police had tiptoed their way around the question. I calmly replied that I didn't, and if we could just go forward with the procedure and protocol so that I could be on my way. But the nightmare was far from over.

Just as I thought the officers were going to return my passport and iPhone to me, I was asked to enter my password into my phone so that they could access my personal information, my photos, conversations and applications. This reminded me of past experiences in other parts of the world where I was offered either to submit to such an invasions of privacy or sit in a police car. And so I entered my password.

In the name of security, I watched as two officers swiped through my selfies, intimate photos of the person we had until now called my partner, and through random contacts on my phone. I felt violated, but tried to stand tall. That was until they came across a series of WhatsApp messages and interviews I conducted last month while in São Paulo working with Syrian refugees for a photo report. I explained to them that the interviews were confidential, that they were violating the rights of my sources, and that as a journalist I wouldn't have to justify their words as mine.

At this point I was asked to take my belongings and return back through those heavy glass doors, back through the waiting room to sit right in front of a large mirror with officers on the other side. And that is where I would spend the next six hours.

I sat as the so-called immigration police, or Homeland Security agents, rifled their way through the past 10 years of my contacts, professional conversations, and private ones.

Having to account for every post, utterance or other person's internet rant, the fragility of freedom begin to dawn on me. I had only just arrived in the land of the brave that very morning and somehow I felt that my past freedoms had come at a price.

Over the next few hours I was asked whether I recognized certain names or not. Some I did, and some I didn't. At one point I was asked to identify someone based on their Facetime profile. "You said you didn't know anyone in Miami, so who is sending you these messages?" Neither I nor Homeland Security knew at this point that these were messages from people that my partner had begged to use their phone to send me a message, regular American citizens with local Miami numbers, who were now themselves being scrutinized.

In one particular situation I was asked why I had stated in a personal correspondence months prior that I was, "an Arab too" when corresponding with a friend. The few officers around me, some wearing bulletproof vests, rolled their eyes and coughed up, "You are Arab? We didn't know."

Sitting in the same chair with apple sauce in one hand and tuna spread in the other I began to shiver. Was I to account for everything in my phone? Indeed, I was. Some of the refugees I had interviewed for my photo story had described their anger with the world's disregard for daily atrocities in Syria and the world's focus on the victims of the Paris bombings. How was to I justify that? When asked about the Paris attacks, I answered how profoundly upset the events had gotten me because, after all, Paris was the city where I was born and raised. The officers neglected this by asking once again, "But wait a minute, I thought you're American?"

As if somehow that made it clear that I couldn't possibly be all-American, French or Middle Eastern for that matter at the same time. That we should all just choose one side, one country, one camp.

I have always vouched that I know no one with violent ideas or intentions, either in person or in social networks. I am proud to say, even after this ten hour ordeal, that it still stands true. I have always valued creativity and freedom of expression as I still believe the pen to be mightier than the sword. I was eventually released, handed back my passport, my telephone and my belongings. Exiting this Kafka-esque inferno I searched desperately for a white phone on the wall and paged my partner. For many moments prior I had feared I may never see again.

Along she came, petrified, obviously shaken and hesitant. She immediately confessed that she hadn't even been sure it was me who had paged her. She had spent the past ten hours wandering Miami International Airport begging any and every airport security guard, airline officials or other travelers to help her. On nearly every occasion she was told that I was not in custody, or that she should probably take her next flight to Houston, leave the airport or go back to where she came from. One immigration employee, whom we will not name, who knew that I was in custody, actually told her that I wasn't at the airport at all, and I had not taken the flight from Rio to Miami. Looking at him dead in the eye she waved my boarding pass for Miami to Houston, and his reply was that she did not know who I was and that I was involved in some "terrible things." She naturally began to fear for herself as immigration officials began asking her for personal information. In a short moment she had experienced what she calls in Portuguese "terror." Not by the hands of some radical group, but a foreign country I call home.

Reunited after nearly 24 hours after having left Rio, we boarded a night flight to Houston where we both slept on each other shoulders exhausted.

This morning we were greeted by a bright sun in chilly Texas on this November day. So blessed to be back in the US for Thanksgiving day with friends and family, faced with the choice to let it slide, or to make this very statement. Freedom is just this, the choice to let go or the courage to speak up. In the words of Joni Mitchell, "You don't know what you got till it's gone."

Kim Badawi
November 23rd, 2015

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