How I Became a Threat to National Security
- Margaree Little
I'll be honest: there have been times in my life when I've bemoaned the fact that my presence is not more intimidating. After all, a diminutive stature, face full of freckles, and cheeks that apparently remained pinchable long after I had traded in ballet for ballots are not characteristics typically associated with the warrior caste to which I so badly wanted to belong. In Junior High School I would try to make my voice sound more commanding or my pants less torn in the knees, but this only rendered me a sheep in wolf's clothing, and, let's face it. I just didn't look the part.
There are benefits, of course, that accompany an appearance that society has deemed benign. You tend to get fewer speeding tickets. People don't cross to the other side of the street when you walk towards them. You are rarely, if ever, asked to speak on behalf of your entire demographic. In airports, you're more likely to get a smile than a strip search.
I say all of this not to expound upon the endearing qualities of freckles (though there are many) but rather to illustrate that I have almost never in my life had to endure what millions of people in this country endure on a daily basis: systemic aggressions and micro-aggressions of racism and classism, and institutionalized law-enforcement policies of discriminatory and unconstitutional profiling.
Over the last four years, of course, social organizers and war-dissenters have joined the ranks of those included in the definition of "potential terrorist." We've all heard stories from activists who've been illegally arrested, or detained, or mysteriously placed on "no-fly" lists. But, still, I never thought that it would happen to me. Last year, I did most of my organizing by way of an internship at the American Friends Service Committee-you know, the peace and justice organization founded by those terrifying pacifist folks, the Quakers. And arguably the most dangerous thing that I've done this year is open a can of tomato sauce with what looked to be a medieval can-opener at the soup kitchen where I work. My organizing, it seemed, was fated to be pretty much in accordance with the pinchability of my cheeks.
This was, however, all about to change.
On November 18, I was on my way to Ft. Benning, Georgia, to participate in the annual nonviolent demonstration against the School of the Americas. (The SOA, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation, is responsible for training thousands of Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency techniques, terror and torture. Among notable graduates are Manuel Noriega, dictator of Panama, and Roberto DuBussion, the man responsible for the "Be a Patriot; Kill a Priest" campaign in El Salvador. Every year people gather at the gates of the school, as part of a campaign to shut it down. Sometimes nonviolent civil-disobedience is practiced; last year, for instance, soldiers at the base were greeted by the alarming sight of one hundred Maryknoll nuns crossing the line onto the grounds to be arrested.)
I was running late on my way to the airport, on account of being stopped for speeding (the officer, an amicable guy, had reduced my speed when he recorded it in the books, so that I wouldn't have to pay so large a ticket). I hurried to the Delta counter, anxious to check my bags and get to the gate, but there seemed to be a problem with my flight reservation. I waited while the very nice flight attendant telephoned some people to try to figure things out, and we chatted for a bit while she was on hold. Perhaps I made a good impression on her (freckles?) or perhaps simply because she was a nice person, she gave me a concerned look when the boarding passes finally came through.
"You're not," she asked, "in the military by any chance, are you?"
I said no, and emitted what must have been an incredulous noise, because she seemed to feel compelled to explain.
"I asked because you are on a list for an extra security check. It's not the standard, randomly-selected list, and sometimes people in the military have to go through extra security procedures."
If it wasn't a random list, and if I wasn't in the military, could she tell me why I needed to go through extra security? No, she said, she was sorry but she didn't have that information.
All of this struck me as odd, but I really needed to get to my gate, so I thanked her and went up the stairs to the checkpoint area. After waiting in line for a bit, I came to a desk where I showed a woman my boarding pass and driver's license. She gave me a look that took in my "fair-trade certified" sweatshirt and the tear in the knee of my corduroys, then plucked the papers from my hand and screamed, "FEMALE SPECIAL."
I didn't know whether to burst out laughing, or slap her, or run away, but before I could make a choice I was whisked out of the line of harmless citizens and into an area enclosed by shoulder-height walls. While I was being patted down, a man with angry-looking jowls emptied out my carry-on, turning a box of tampons upside down and flipping through the pages of my textbooks and journal. I looked nervously at my watch, waiting for him to finish examining a throat lozenge that had been in my bag since August, and began to get exasperated.
"Excuse me, sir," I said, in my best attempt at a commanding tone of voice. "But I really need to catch this flight. Could you please tell me how people are selected for this procedure?"
"It's random," growled the jowls, but I summoned my internal spear and pressed on.
"But that's not what the woman downstairs at the Delta counter told me," I said. "She specifically said that the list that my name happens to be on is not randomly compiled."
At this, he began to backpedal ever so slightly. "Sometimes people change their itineraries right before the flight, and that gets them on the list," came the very helpful reply, and I informed him that I hadn't changed my itinerary at all.
"Well, it's the law," he said, as he pulled the Harper's magazine from my bag, held it at arms length, and scowled at it pinkly.
By this time, I had roughly six minutes to get to my flight, and the tiny little pragmatist in my head rapped on the inside of my skull and told me to shut my trap. I did so, and eventually was handed my things and told that I could go.
I made the flight just in time, and during the trip to Atlanta thought over what had happened. I was prepared to believe that perhaps the woman at the ticket counter had been mistaken. Perhaps I had just been randomly selected after all, as happens to so many people. If this was the case, I reasoned, then surely it wouldn't happen during my return flight on Sunday, which had been booked through a different airline-for all purposes, an entirely separate reservation. But in the airport before my return flight I was once again directed to a separate room, patted down, throat lozenges examined. The people in this airport were actually quite friendly, though one did look a bit suspiciously at the leaflets that I had acquired over the course of the weekend.
During the flight to DC, and then from DC to Portland, I pondered the evidence. It seemed that I could draw no other conclusion than that I was now considered, to some small degree, an official threat to national security.
I tried to figure out how this made me feel. I was angry, of course-angry that I had been treated rudely in the Portland airport, and angry that no one would tell me how precisely my name had been added to this enigmatic list of dangerous citizens. I was angry, too, at myself, for not having fully recognized the humiliation and violation that is inherent in demographic-based profiling. I was angry at the implication of being searched like this in an airport-the implication being that I was the sort of national security threat with the inclination to blow up an airplane full of human beings. Like most people who care about social justice, I do the work that I do because I am deeply opposed to policies that hurt people, whether they are illustrated in tax cuts that perpetuate wealth disparity, health care programs that leave millions of citizens out, minimum wages that are not living wages, deregulation of protection of natural resources, or a foreign policy that reeks of arrogance and colonialism. In short, I do what work I do because I'm opposed to terrorism, which wears many hats.
But, frankly, there was and is a part of me that is proud to be considered a threat to national security. When national security means a status quo of inequity and injustice, when it means the security of not having to see just how insecure we are, when it means a standard of living that is not only unsustainable but dependent upon exploitation and repression overseas and within our own borders-why, there is nothing more that I aspire to than to be a real and viable threat to this so-called "national security," which is, after all, only dangerous complacence in a colorful hat. I'm reminded of the words of a defector of the Nazi military who, when asked how he could best be a German patriot, replied that his patriotic duty must be to work and pray for the defeat of his own country.
In empire, there can be no greater obligation than the obligation of the empire's subjects to work toward dismantling and recreating their own lives, and to become, in mind, body, and work, threats to the very nature of imperialism. I am suggesting that we dedicate ourselves to becoming national security threats, whether that means growing tomatoes or smashing our televisions or calling our congressmen every day or standing in the streets of our towns and the streets of the capital, climbing out of our comfort zones of action, being imaginative, having the courage to bear witness and tell stories and bring solidarity and humor and energy and truth to every moment of our days.
How foolish I was to try to "look the part," when we all have such important parts to play. Let's be national security threats in our libraries, in our suburbs, in our backyards and front yards, in our town councils and school committees and gardens and careers, with everything that we possess.
Let's be national security threats. And the next time that we enter an airport and an ornery woman refers to us as dinner specials, we'll give her a wink and a nod, surrender our throat lozenges to the man with the pink face, and know that we've been doing something right.
Margaree Little, 18, is a freshman at Colby College in
Maine, served last year on the coordinating committee of the Green Party of
Rhode Island, and worked as a youth intern at the American Friends Service
Committee of Southeastern New England. Since coming to college she has done
organizing work with the Maine College Action Network, GE Free Maine, and SOA Watch. She can be reached at email@example.com