Security Theater in a Bureaucratic State

I was a constant visitor to the United States—even before I permanently immigrated here—spending annually a few weeks here for both business and pleasure. My trips were always punctuated by what became an all-too-familiar detour to the infamous “back room,” where Transportation Security Administration agents would grill me about my past and the reasons for my visit.

As a young, solidly built Arab man who works as an expert on state and global security, I completely understood the imperative guiding these agents. As agents responsible for the protection of the United States from incoming threats, it’s not hard to see why they would perceive someone like myself as a potential risk.

So the following should not be mistaken for a rant about border security, the TSA, or the immigration process. Rather, I offer an observation that should illustrate the problem. About a week prior to my return from my latest trip abroad, Hadi Matar attempted to assassinate Salman Rushdie. The British-Indian author’s book, The Satanic Verses, famously was considered blasphemous by many Muslims worldwide and earned him a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Matar, a Shiite of Lebanese descent, had apparently been radicalized during a three-week séjour in Lebanon in 2018, roughly the same amount of time I spent abroad during my last trip. He has since become vocal in his support for the mullah regime online, which apparently went unnoticed by the state security panopticon.

Despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Agency, none of them saw a terrorist threat in Hadi Matar. Yet they continue to insist on dragging me to the room in order to extract sensitive information vital to national security interests, like the exact address of my mother, a retired high school teacher.

Back to the dreaded room, it has probably caused more delays for incoming tourists than it has deterred terrorist plots. Once slated for an interview there, one would usually witness a throng of brown and otherwise dark-skinned people patiently waiting their turns to be questioned by agents who had a look of someone resigned to a perpetual fate of repeatedly asking questions designed to lead them nowhere. After all, how many terrorists were ever caught because they answered “yes” to the surreal question of “Do you or have you ever belonged to a terrorist organization?” To the uninformed, this is an actual question that applicants to a visa or a permanent residency have to answer in their application forms.

In the past, just to quell suspicions of racial profiling, there would always be that one unlucky Asian who was also “randomly” selected to be sent to the room. The ratio of yellow to brown, however, has been steadily increasing in recent years, with the growing threat of Chinese infiltration. Unsurprisingly, and probably in the institutional spirit of diversity and inclusivity, we now also see a random white individual sitting frightened among us in the room. 

On my most recent reentry to the country, the luck of the draw fell on a frail septuagenarian astrophysicist from Rome. The highest risk he could have ever posed for national security was to probably bore someone to death at some dinner party. If it were not for him being “randomly” selected, though, someone might have complained that this looked like racial profiling, which this absurd ritual certainly is not. The problem is not the profiling. The problem is the absurdity.

Most people there look nervous, particularly if they are not frequent visitors to the United States. The few who look bored have obviously been in this situation more times than they care to remember.

When called in to sit with an agent for an interview you are likely to encounter someone who is courteous and friendly, because most are. To be honest, all agents who have ever interviewed me have been very courteous and nice, and I have no reason to believe that they treat any other incoming visitor with anything but respect. They are genuinely nice people who are simply there to do their jobs.

This is the gist of the problem: their jobs.

I have been trying to rationalize this fruitless exercise ever since my first trip to the United States in 2009. What could they possibly gain from this interview that the entire apparatus of the DHS might have missed? What magic can these agents conjure that would allow them to force some confession out of the mouth of a security risk that all of the background checks and digital audits previously performed by their plethora of agencies could not uncover?

Could it be that they are fishing for some inconsistency in the background they are given? Most of the interview consists of being asked the exact same questions you’ve already answered during past visits to the room or on visa application forms. Then again, either statements are truthful and will always be the same, or, in case they are dealing with an individual with nefarious designs in mind, answers to such a line of questioning would have been well rehearsed and remained consistent.

The bigger worry is if they actually catch some perpetrator during one of these procedures. It would simply mean that the entire collective efforts of the DHS, NSA, and the State Department, dedicated to running background checks on anyone wanting to enter the United States, effectively failed.

But this raises a question. If the background checks these agencies perform are accurate and actionable, why would I or, for that matter, an unfortunate Italian astrophysicist, get stopped on our way back to the United States. I am a green card holder, which means that Homeland was supposed to have done extensive research before allowing me to become a permanent resident. I am a highly educated individual; I was raised in a Christian household; I am a staunch defender of personal freedoms and particularly the freedom of speech. 

My profile is, by all accounts, the exact opposite of what a terrorist’s would look like. Why do I still get called to the room?

As I was sitting and waiting to be interrogated, the one nagging idea running through my head was not a critique of the security imperative driving the TSA. It was not a deep analysis on the inefficiency of the merger of state security and bureaucracy. It was one simple thought. 

I wondered whether, on his way back to the United States, Hadi Matar was taken to the room.

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About Hicham Tohme

Hicham Tohme is the director of Trans-Atlantic Network Consulting. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Sheffield and is an expert on Russian military interventions and foreign relations, particularly in the Middle East. He is the author of Russia's Geostrategic Outlook and the Syrian Crisis (2020).

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images