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The Column

Homeland Security, Eh?
2/27/05

I sat on the Canadian side of the border for eight minutes, staring intently at the maroon Dodge Caravan ahead of me and trying to figure out what cartoon the kids were watching in the back. Finally the border patrol waived them through - he'd deduced that SpongeBob Squarepants had much greater things to worry about than invading US soil. It was my turn.

If you've never driven through customs and you have three hours to kill, I recommend it. It reminded of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the troll is questioning King Arthur and his knights before they're allowed to cross the bridge.

"What is your name?"

"King Arthur"

"What is your quest?"

"To find the holy grail."

"Are you carrying in any fruit or vegetables?"

The questions were basic - where have you been, where are you going, how long have you been in Canada, and that one about produce. I got them all right except the one about how long I'd been in Canada. I'd said four hours and then corrected myself - I planned on being there four hours, but the slow crossing procedure made it take seven. The customs agent did NOT appreciate me pointing out why I'd been mistaken.

I still passed. That makes sense - I got a 75 on their little test. Though if I had gotten one more question wrong, they may have made me take summer border-crossing school.

I'm sure there are random searches to deter people from smuggling things over, like firearms or zucchini. But these questions are ridiculous. If anyone is going to get caught by a causal conversation with Border Patrol RFD, they'd have screwed up before they did any damage anyway.

"Boss, I'm really sorry I didn't blow up the arena. I tried, but someone asked me what time it was, and I got all flustered. All these questions are really stressful. I need a hug."

I had plenty of time to think this all through, as I was waiting in the airport a few days later. After spending an hour and twenty minutes in the security line, I unpacked my laptop, took off my shoes and belt, and showed my ID. After clutching my pants on the way through the dignity-removal unit, I picked up my carryon - you know, the one with the knife in it.

A few weeks ago, I'd accidentally left a small pocket knife in my bag. I got through unchecked, so I kept leaving it there. This was the sixth time I've gotten through airport security with a knife. I'm sure my next flight will be the seventh.

The knife is small - it probably couldn't do any more damage than, say, a box cutter. But even if they confiscated it I'd still have another weapon. Whenever I fly early, I pick up breakfast by my gate, purchasing my orange juice in a glass bottle. While I can't imagine a terrorist taking a plane with little more than Orangina, it's not comforting to know it's an option.

The reason we're probably safe from Orangina attacks is of how embarrassing it'd be to the terrorist if he failed.

"Did you hear what happened to [insert generically offensive middle-eastern name here]? He tried to take over a plane with vitamin C! Ahahahaha. Silly [insert generically offensive middle-eastern name here]."

What was it that took the Dodge Caravan so long to pass through that checkpoint? Besides the obvious pun on "nuclear family," what could they have said that triggered eight minutes of questions?

"Well, your story checks out. Your three kids seem harmless - they're all safely buckled in, especially the one in the car seat. You've got three "Support Our Troops" magnets on the back of your car, your bumper sticker is an American flag, and you're eating freedom fries. But what is your favorite color?"

"Blue. No, yel… Ahhhhh!!!!"

The only thing that makes us any safer than we were three years ago is the increased willingness Americans have to put their lives on the line for each other. The Department of Homeland Security, which made news a few months ago when they raided a store in Oregon to confiscate knock-offs of the Rubix Cube, is doing little to make me sleep any easier. Though I was really worried about Rubix getting all his proper royalties. Thanks, guys.

If someone takes over a plane using a pocket knife or an Orangina bottle, we'll all attack him, and that is what is keeping us secure. Not removing our belts or proving our laptops have the ability to come out of their bags, or spending three hours in line to get back into America. Which is also silly - if you're going to try to trip up the terrorists, don't give them all that extra time to study.

When I was leaving the country, the Canadian border patrol was a bit trickier. Instead of asking questions like, "Are you carrying in any fruits or vegetables," they asked, "where are your fruits and vegetables?" I almost answered, "in the trunk!" but luckily I remembered that I am not a produce smuggler, and instead replied, "I don't have any. Though I have a few freedom fries left if you're hungry."

Canada has a sense of humor, already having produced Jim Carey, the Kids in the Hall, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. But I wouldn't recommend getting smarmy at the airport. While at LaGuardia, I refused to remove my sneakers. I told the security guard that sometimes they didn't set off the alarm and I was willing to take my chances. I passed through okay - and then saw her set off the machine manually. After checking me thoroughly, she harangued me about how despite where I'm from, in New York they do things differently. I'd already moved to Los Angeles by then, but I still had my New York ID. I showed it to her, complete with an address about five miles from the airport, and asked her what part of New Jersey she was from.

And with that, I picked up my knife and glass bottle and headed towards my flight.

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